WEST JORDAN — A little-known network of government agencies pay some of the highest salaries in the state. In fact, an analysis of compensation records for water districts show one-third of employees earn six-figure pay packages.
The water conservancy districts manage water resources across the state. Trustees and staff are largely un-elected.
Water is critical for homes, industry, and businesses like Glover Nursery in West Jordan.
“Watering is the most important part of a nursery,” said Ryan Glover, general manager of the nursery.
Water is one of his business’s largest bills. Glover admits, however, he has never thought about what the water providers earn.
“I would imagine probably $100,000, $150,000 a year,” said Glover.
Compensation packages analyzed by the KSL Investigators show Glover’s guess is low.
Records provided by water conservancy districts to the Utah Transparency website show the top five employees earned on average over a quarter million dollars last year. Their compensation packages include benefits like healthcare and sometimes a car.
The KSL salary analysis also found 60 percent of water district employees make more than $68,000 a year, which was the state’s median income in 2017, according to the Census Bureau.
That level of pay outranks Governor Gary Herbert ($190,188) and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes ($187,433). Top water district salaries are more on par with district court judges across the state, who earn around $264,000.
Taxpayers getting soaked?
Billy Hesterman, the vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, said the water salaries are offensive to taxpayers.
“It’s obscene,” said Hesterman. “We don’t understand why someone at this level needs to earn that kind of money.”
“The taxpayers should look at this and go to those districts and ask what are you doing? Why do you need so much, and why is this justified?” continued Hesterman.
Man at the top
The KSL Investigators took that question to Richard Bay, the CEO of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District and the top earner on our list.
“I think the public is getting a great bargain for my services,” Bay told us, saying his salary is justified by a variety of factors.
“My abilities to develop and negotiate for new water sources, my ability to oversee the operations and maintenance of hundreds of miles of pipeline,” said Bay.
Bay oversees over 150 employees and said he is on-call at all times, because when users turn on their faucet, they expect the water to flow.
“Every day, every minute, every hour, without fail,” said Bay.
He started out as a staff engineer and worked his way up to the corner office. He has been the CEO for 12 years.
In his first full year as CEO in 2007, his pay package totaled $176,562. It has increased 55 percent in the last decade.
Bay said he helped the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District take on mining giant Kennecott Copper and got it to pay millions more to cleanup polluted groundwater. Kennecott’s money was used to help build reverse osmosis plants, which pull pollutants out of the groundwater and allows the district to tap into that source of water.
Bay said every drop is critical.
“A third of the state lives right here in my service area in the Salt Lake Valley,” said Bay.
But Hesterman wasn’t convinced.
“This is reaching a level that’s far too high for us,” said Hesterman.
He believes it is too easy for taxpayers to overlook these water conservancy districts and not hold them accountable.
“We often think of school districts, cities, counties, the state, but we forget about this level of government that we have,” said Hesterman.
Taxpayers and ratepayers alike may not forget them anymore. Of the two dozen water conservancy districts analyzed by KSL Investigators, 242 employees, or one-third of the total staff, earned $100,000 and up.
Compensation packages for all the districts are set by their board of directors. Those boards are generally made up of elected officials, like mayors, and local business people.