Port seeks to lift lid on its wages Legislators are told pay is not high enough to draw top executives


March 13, 1998|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

In an effort to become more competitive in an increasingly cutthroat maritime industry, the Maryland Port Administration is seeking legislative approval to bypass the state's merit system and increase the salaries of its top officials.

The proposed measure -- which has the backing of port labor and business leaders -- would allow the Maryland Port Commission to set the salaries for MPA employees as it did prior to 1996.

State Transportation Secretary David L. Winstead told a House of Delegates committee yesterday that the 6 percent ceiling on salary increases for all state Department of Transportation employees makes it increasingly difficult to attract and retain top candidates at the port agency.

"Our problem has been recruiting and retaining the kind of talent we need," Winstead told the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee.

Other states, he said, have given their port authorities considerably more flexibility in setting port officials' salaries.

From 1988 to 1996, the port commission, which oversees the MPA, had the authority to set the salaries for all MPA employees.

Because of a change in state law in 1996, all Department of Transportation workers, including the MPA, became covered by the merit system governing wages and benefits.

According to the American Association of Port Authorities, the port of Baltimore's executive director, Tay Yoshitani, is among the lowest paid at East Coast ports.

His $130,000 annual salary is less than that of any other top port official, except for Jacksonville, Fla., a smaller port that also pays its director $130,000.

Most port authorities are operated by local or state governments with the responsibility of attracting cargo to state-owned marine terminals.

The head of the port of Philadelphia, one of Baltimore's key competitors, earns $175,000 a year; the port of Savannah, $156,000; and Miami, $178,394.

Yoshitani was recently a finalist in Miami's search for a new executive director.

In recent years, the port of Baltimore has seen considerable turnover among its executive directors, though that turnover has had little to do with salary levels.

More troubling, however, has been the port's inability to attract top people for other high-level jobs, Winstead said.

Recently, for instance, port officials have experienced considerable difficulty in hiring a top data system specialist for its marine terminals, he said.

Maryland port officials are eligible for bonuses. But they are contingent on the port's performance, specifically whether it has increased its market share in competition with other ports.

In recent years, the port here has been losing cargo as steamship lines that once called at a half-dozen ports on the East Coast have been forming alliances and choosing fewer ports in an effort to save time and money.

To cost $150,000

The proposed change, which faces little or no legislative opposition, is expected to cost $150,000 the first year.

Winstead said yesterday that he is also concerned about salaries of airport officials.

No change, however, has been offered in that area.

The proposed change for the MPA raises the prospect that the port ultimately will seek the authority to bypass the state's procurement laws, which govern competitive bidding.

Pub Date: 3/13/98

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