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Thursday, June 18,2009

Water and power

What drove this guy to request the (actual) salaries of all employees of the Board of Water and Light?

by Neal McNamara

Steve Harry lives in a comfortable house on the banks of the Grand River on Tecumseh River Drive in north Lansing.
He is retired and drawing a pension from the state. Last summer, he ran in the Democratic primary against Lansing state Rep. Joan Bauer.

This summer, Harry is keeping up with public policy work. In May, he sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the Board of Water and Light asking for the names, job titles, salaries or hourly pay and total 2008 earnings for all of the utility’s 727 employees.

Was it a grudge against the big rateraising utility? Or was he just fishing?


“It was something that was in the back of my mind,” he said calmly, sitting on a couch in his den on a recent afternoon. “I think someone had said to me, ‘If you got a job at BWL, you have it made.’”


The information Harry received — at least to him — was surprising: Eighty-six BWL employees made at least $30,000 each more than their base salaries, with the highest — a non-union supervisor — nearly doubling his $69,388 salary with an extra $66,067. Further, Harry discovered that another 375 BWL employees had exceeded their base salaries by $2,000 to $11,937.

“It was even worse than I expected,” he said of the FOIA results, which cost him $57.46.


Harry said that the issue of pay at BWL had interested him since reading reports of ex-BWL executives who were either fired or left the utility receiving payouts totaling $1.3 million.

Harry has published all of the information on his Web site, SteveHarrypublicpolicy.com. According to a spreadsheet he made, the total earnings of all 727 BWL employees in 2008 was $52 million — an $8 million load on top of BWL's $46 million budget.

Harry says he hasn’t received much attention for publishing the information. One employee, he said, sent him an e-mail asking him to mind his own business and an official with the IBEW Local 352, which represents 420 hourly BWL employees, asked him not to publish the names. Ron Byrnes, business manager for Local 352, said that he did ask Harry not to publish the names because it might upset some of the workers.

However, Harry didn’t take the information one step further and find out why so many employees get compensated over their base salary.


“It’s usually overtime and bonuses — you expect a lot of overtime,” Harry surmised. “For the salaried people, it was more surprising.”


Sue Warren, BWL’s marketing and business strategy director, said that the overpay came from overtime related to last year’s tornado and winter water main breaks, “achievement awards” for salaried employees that come with a monetary reward, health benefits and employees who opt to take payouts in lieu of vacation time.


“All these people earn that money; it’s not like we are just giving them money,” she said. “They do earn the money.”

Warren said that union employees can get up to twice their hourly rate for overtime, which tends to skyrocket during storms or other emergencies, she said.


Byrnes said much the same. The employees that provide “critical services” are always on call, which can lead to a lot of overtime. However, IBEW BWL employees don’t get bonuses.

“Last year, for example, we had a major storm that knocked out quite a bit (of utility service),” he said. “We had employees working around the clock.”

Harry says he’s contacted local politicians and candidates for city offices with the information, but hasn’t got much more than “thanks for the info.” But, at heart, this is the kind of stuff that Harry likes to do.


Toward the end of an interview with Harry, his wife called. When he told her he was being interviewed by a reporter, she told him to “be good.” But it doesn’t seem to be a matter of behavior for Harry, as he seems more a public policy hobbyist than gadfly. For example, he says his run against Bauer was just to get across some of his platforms. He just enjoys researching and writing about public policy.

“If I had won, I would have had to sit through meetings all day,” he said with a grimace. “Doing this, I’m on my own and I’m doing what I want. No commitments.”



An earlier version of this story was incorrect in explaining the total salaries of all BWL employees, including ones that made more than their base salary. The total extra-salary earnings in 2008 was about $8 million.


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