After two years on the job, the county’s top transit leader is now earning nearly $500,000 in total compensation including benefits following an annual raise and performance bonus.
It’s an amount the San Mateo County Transit District Board of Directors contends is commensurate for the work, while critics argue it’s out of line with the public sector.
Jim Hartnett’s title as general manager and CEO of the San Mateo County Transit District comes with a variety of responsibilities as he oversees the SamTrans bus system, the county’s Transportation Authority and Caltrain.
As leader of the district, his job includes working for the TA on expenditures of the county’s half-cent sales tax set aside for transportation projects, and coordinating with Santa Clara as well as San Francisco counties on Caltrain matters.
An attorney and former Redwood City mayor, this year Hartnett received a 3.5 percent raise, $50,000 performance bonus and an extension to his five-year employment contract.
“We feel very confident in Jim’s abilities,” said SamTrans board Chair Rose Guilbault. “When you have someone you feel has the strength and the vision and the leadership to do what you need for the agency, that’s really the most critical part.”
But some contend the nearly half a million-dollar total compensation is extravagant for a public position, even one as varied Hartnett’s. Menlo Park resident Morris Brown said the district seems to be one of the highest-paying transit agencies in the state.
When first hired in March 2015 from a pool of nearly 200 candidates, Hartnett’s compensation included about $434,661 in annual salary and benefits. Following an annual employee evaluation, the SamTrans board voted April 5 to reward Hartnett for his work.
His base salary was increased 3.5 percent from $271,547 to $281,051. He also receives an annual stipend for serving as executive director of Caltrain’s Joint Powers Board, which was increased by $5,000 to him now earning $85,000 a year, according to the district. His duties related to the TA come with another $25,000 annual stipend, according to the district.
His contract provides for “performance pay,” or this year a $50,000 bonus that the board awarded “in recognition of his outstanding performance during his second year,” according to the district’s resolution.
Hartnett did not want to comment on this article.
Six of nine board members attended the April 5 meeting and approved the contract, according to the district.
His nearly $441,051 in compensation doesn’t include retirement benefits. Hartnett’s contract provides for $24,000 toward the district’s deferred compensation plan, and is eligible for the state retirement system as well as another pension plan. He will also receive $30,000 a year toward another retirement plan that would begin to vest after his fifth anniversary with the transit agencies, according to the district. He was given 240 hours of paid time off, and can accrue additional time that could ultimately be cashed out once he retires, according to the district.
That sort of retirement “balloon payment” caused a stir in cities such as San Mateo when its former city manager received a hefty $325,893 payout when she left after accruing nearly 2,000 hours in unused vacation time.
Guilbault, a public member on the district’s board, said she’s confident they’re being good stewards of public funds and noted many transportation agencies pay commensurate salaries.
“If you look across the board in terms of what other leaders in agencies or government are being compensated, you’ll see that it’s not an extravagant amount for the work and the responsibilities,” Guilbault said. “I think we are being responsible to the taxpayers.”
Hartnett isn’t the only one to be earning six-figure salaries at the county’s transit district. In 2015, more than 100 employees took home more than $100,000 in regular pay, while 200 workers earned six-digits when benefits were included, according to Transparent California’s most recent available data.
The local agency isn’t alone in paying its top executive well either. In 2015, the general manager of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority earned almost $477,500, which included a base salary of $330,195, according to Transparent California.
But Brown, the Menlo Park resident, said he took particular issue with Hartnett’s $50,000 performance payment, suggesting it’s been a rocky year for Caltrain. Brown noted the rail agency’s pending litigation with a contractor over installation of its federally-mandated new control system; and the estimated $20 million cost of extending electrification contracts due to the Federal Transit Administration deferring a grant decision.
“It just seems like the board went ahead and awarded him a nice increase in his stipend, in particular this performance guarantee, which is hard for me to understand since there’s so many problems that have manifested themselves particularly in the last year,” Brown said.
Guilbault said Hartnett’s job with Caltrain alone has been a day and night responsibility and although there may have been some difficulties, argued having a strong leader at the helm is critical in times like these.
“He’s doing a very good job at a challenging time,” she said. “And that’s what we want, that’s what we expect.”
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Note to readers: This article has been corrected to show six of the nine board members were in attendance and voted in favor at the April 5 meeting.