COMMENTARY: Numbers don’t add up for Delaware Compensation Commission

The Legislature has made the right call by rejecting the Delaware Compensation Commission recommendations.

Given the current budget crisis in Delaware, the possibility of a $20,000-a-year raise for Delaware’s Supreme Court justices, plus significant raises for many other leaders, rightfully caused concern.

According to the National Center For State Courts, over the last eight years, Delaware’s justices have fallen from being the fourth-highest-paid out of all the states, to the ninth-highest, placing them higher than 42 other states. This fall in ranking was, in part, caused by the lack of substantial pay raises over this period of time. To be fair, this was the same for all state employees.

Bill Bowden

Chief Justice Strine has argued (who better to make your case) convincingly that the Chancery Court and the Supreme Court bring enormous added value to our state. He correctly points out that had they not elected to volunteer to serve the greater good as public servants, they could be earning many thousands of dollars more in the private sector. We do owe them a debt of gratitude, along with equitable compensation, viewed under the constraints of public service pay.

However, if you take Chief Justice Strine’s arguments and apply them to many regular positions in the legislative and executive branches, you would come up with the same dilemma.

When considering judges’ compensation, consideration should also be given to the additional benefits that judges receive from their unique Delaware Judicial Retirement Plan. Using the state’s retirement calculator, and the current [annual] salary for Supreme Court justices of $192,360, you come up with a distinct advantage for the judges.

Judges making that amount, retiring with 20 years of service, could receive a monthly retirement check of $10,046. Regular state employees, using the same salary and years of service, would receive $5,574 a month. That amounts to $120,552 a year for the judges compared to $66,144, using the state’s regular retirement calculator, making the difference over 40 percent less. This makes the judges’ total compensation over 40 percent more valuable when computing their retirement. In effect, it is like deferred compensation. It is very significant!

Top-level judges, for the most part, make significantly higher salaries than the leadership in the executive branch. When you add in the very lucrative retirement plan, the separation is even greater.

Our governor currently makes $171,000. However, it is easy to understand why some may feel that the judges warrant additional compensation when you look at some of the pay anomalies in our state. We have some school superintendents exceeding the top judges’ compensation, [and] the Delaware Technical and Community College president making in excess of $230,000 base salary plus.

Recently, the old DTCC president (a state employee) retired at $390,000 a year, and [there are] numerous executive branch employees earning in excess of $200,000 year after year in overtime because of mismanagement. To many, these are examples of compensation plans gone haywire.

Our legislators also get a special retirement deal because their $7,500 expense account counts as salary in determining their retirement. This is also a “total compensation” bonus in comparison to regular employees.

If the Delaware Compensation Commission should continue, they need to consider “total compensation” when making comparisons for employees who have additional types of compensation. Essentially, they are asked to reclassify all of these senior-level positions every four years, when, in fact, in most businesses and organizations, and for regular state employees, reclassification of a position only happens when there is a significant change in responsibilities. It is time to rethink this commission.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Bowden is a retired Verizon Delaware executive and a past president of the Delaware Quality Award, and served for eight years in state government as the executive director of Delaware’s Department of Technology and Information.

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