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TVA's "Winning Performance" payments:

• $107 million: Total incentive pay to 12,893 TVA employees for fiscal 2011

• $83 million: Total incentive pay to 12,457 TVA employees for fiscal 2010

• $8,300: Average incentive check to be given to each TVA employee next week, up by an average of $1,536 from last year.

• $3.95 million: Total compensation for TVA CEO Tom Kilgore, up by $352,481 from last year.

Source: Tennessee Valley Authority

TVA employees will have extra reason to be thankful next week.

On Wednesday, the eve of Thanksgiving, the federal utility will hand out incentive checks averaging $8,300 to each of its 12,893 full-time workers.

Despite the federal pay freeze, the Tennessee Valley Authority is increasing its year-end incentive pay by nearly 29 percent over a year ago, distributing a record $107 million to reward workers for exceeding goals for the past years.

TVA also raised the compensation for its top executives this year, boosting CEO Tom Kilgore's pay and benefits to nearly $4 million for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, nearly 10 times the salary paid to President Barack Obama.

During a board meeting Thursday, TVA directors said there was no increase in the base pay or performance bonuses for Kilgore this year. But Kilgore's contract provided him an extra $352,481 in other pension and incentive pay in 2011 over what he received during the previous year, according to TVA regulatory filings released Friday.

Kilgore and other top TVA executives are among the highest-paid federal employees in America. However, TVA pay consultants estimate Kilgore earns only 37 percent of the industry average for comparable-size electric utilities.

Critics object to raising pay in any form at TVA while most federal workers are under a pay freeze and many Tennesseans are struggling to pay their power bills.

U.S. Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., the dean of the Tennessee congressional delegation, has called on TVA to hold the line on pay and benefits until the economy improves and to reduce pay for top executives.

"You don't have to pay multimillion-dollar salaries and benefits to get good, competent workers to live and work in East Tennessee," said Patrick Newton, Duncan's communications manager. "You can rationalize just about anything, but TVA simply doesn't need to pay its executives these kind of salaries."

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Tennessee Valley Authority CEO Tom Kilgore talks to members of the Times Free Press editorial board in this file photo.

But a TVA restructuring plan adopted by Congress in 2005 calls for the agency to pay competitive wages to employees, including top executives.

Janet Herrin, the utility's executive vice president of people and performance, said the incentives reflect the fact that TVA as a whole exceeded its targeted goals for fiscal 2011.

In a presentation to the TVA board Thursday, Kilgore gave the utility poor grades for nuclear performance, but the agency met other goals for overall power reliability, cost containment and economic development, Herrin said.

"We are striving to offer competitive pay to attract and retain the best people we can at TVA," she said. "When we go out in the market and look at what comparable utilities of similar size as TVA, they all have a compensation system that is similar with both base pay and pay that is at risk depending upon performance."

Herrin said TVA agreed to participate in the wage freeze ordered by Obama for other federal agencies last year. But she said the incentives are beyond the base pay covered by the freeze.

Some of TVA's top executives, including Group President Kim Greene, Chief Financial Officer John Thomas and Chief Nuclear Officer Preston Swafford, also received bigger paychecks because of promotions or pay raises before the salary freeze became effective in January.

Also exempt from the freeze are the 70 percent of TVA employees represented by labor unions, Herrin said.

Unionized engineers and secretaries got raises of about 2.8 percent on Oct. 1, the start of the 2012 fiscal year. Unionized craft workers are negotiating a possible wage increase for the calendar year of 2012, Herrin said.

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