Outsized ‘boat checks’ from state schools prompt call for probe
By Evan Lips | March 31, 2016, 19:42 EST
BOSTON – Reports about the soaring compensation costs resulting from perks offered to senior officials in the state university system prompted a call for an investigation from state Sen. Ryan Fattman (R-Webster), who cited a recent news story about a retired Bridgewater State University president’s pay.
“I am greatly concerned that lax personnel policies and extravagant benefits for senior officials and administrators needlessly burden both taxpayers and tuition payers,” Fattman said in a letter to Sen. Michael J. Barrett (D-Lexington), the chairman of the state Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, requesting an investigation of the matter.
Similar issues have arisen in states such as California and New Jersey, where big payouts to state workers at retirement have been called “boat checks,” because they’re often big enough to pay for a small yacht. Garden State Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, sought to reform his state’s compensation rules to cut into the size of payments for things like unused sick and vacation time, which in some cases pushed final payouts into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Fattman took aim at more than just payments for unused time off, however.
“An investigation would also encompass taxpayer funded housing allowances; car allowances; country club memberships; domestic and international travel expenses; credit card use; professional membership and licensure expenses; consulting pay; tuition and fee remission for family members at public and/or private institutions of higher education; and the metrics used in performance-based compensation,” the senator wrote to Barrett.
Barrett didn’t respond to a request for comment on Fattman’s letter.
In requesting the probe, Fattman cited the financial windfall reportedly collected by Bridgewater’s Dana Mohler-Faria when he retired in June, as detailed in a Boston Business Journal story published March 11. Fattman said that Mohler-Faria’s 13-year stint as the school’s president netted him about $270,000 in payment for unused sick and vacation time, along with an annual state pension payment $183,421 and a consulting contract worth almost $100,000 a year as a community adviser. Mohler-Faria has since dropped the consulting deal.
The story also prompted Carlos Santiago, the state Department of Higher Education commissioner, to pledge his own investigation into the pay and benefits practices at Massachusetts public colleges and universities, according to the business weekly.
Fattman went beyond the Bridgewater State deal, telling Barrett that “28 state officials have received $100,000 or more in cash payouts for unused sick and vacation time.”
“The 10 largest cash payouts, ranging from $124,326 to $269,984, went to senior officials and administrators from colleges and universities in the state university system,” Fattman wrote. “From 2011 to 2015, the state paid roughly $1.7 million in unused sick and vacation time to these 10 individuals alone.”
A more recent report, in the Lowell Sun, said the former president of Middlesex Community College in the city collected more than $207,000 for unused sick leave and vacation time after retiring in February 2015, while an executive vice president picked up more than $115,000 for unused sick leave and vacation pay. Both had worked for the state and/or the school for almost four decades.
Recent news reports indicate the state is on the hook for $500 million in such payments, Fattman said. “With the state facing a $600 million-plus structural deficit in the coming fiscal year, these types of benefit-based liabilities are unsustainable and irresponsible and must be addressed,” he wrote.
Fattman stressed that he is concerned that the expensive perks and benefits “may fall upon the shoulders of our students, whose average student debt has increased 75 percent over the past decade to nearly $30,000.”