“Astronomical” pay raises for Fitz’s inner circle elicit calls of favoritism, new salary disclosure legislation in Allegheny County

County Manager Willy McKain, charged to negotiate county labor contracts, defends record at March inquiry, says the county executive approved his $75,000 salary increase.

Allegheny County Courthouse. Photo: DLLU/Wikipedia (CC-BY-SA)

Prominent members of the Allegheny County executive branch received major salary increases during County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s third and final term in office.

According to documents obtained by Right-to-Know request, County Manager Willy McKain saw his salary jump 47% between 2019 and 2022, from over $160,000 to more than $235,000, including one single-year increase of over $58,000.

“We’re talking huge increases to people where there were no changes in responsibilities or job titles, and they were in the same roles that they [held] previously,” said County Council president and ordinance sponsor, Patrick Catena. “Sure, the excuse can be made that they did really fantastic jobs. I call BS on that.”

Unlike the City of Pittsburgh, whose budget spells out individual salaries as a line item, Allegheny County’s budget assigns an overall amount for personnel but leaves individual salaries to the discretion of department heads.

A new ordinance would require offices to submit salary reports to the council two weeks before the budget is submitted. Sponsored by Catena and Councilperson Bethany Hallam, the legislation will be voted on June 22 in the Committee on Government Reform before being sent to the full county council for a vote.

In addition to McKain, Jennifer Liptak, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s Chief of Staff, saw her salary rise by $56,000 during the same period. Senior Deputy County Manager Stephen Pilarski received a salary increase of $44,000 between 2019 and 2022, a 38% raise. M. Joanne Foerster, the Director of Performance and Analytics, received a 40% pay increase of over $36,000.

“The average raise [for county employees] during this time was much less,” Hallam said. “These are astronomical raises, and we don’t know how they were set.”

County spokesperson Amie Downs did not respond to questions asking what specific benchmarks or rationale were used to determine the raises in the county executive and manager’s offices.

Allegheny County raises
Source: Allegheny County Controller’s office, via Right-to-Know request. Since 2020, the county executive’s salary has been pegged at 68% of the governor’s. Senior Deputy County Manager Stephen Pilarski was promoted to his current position, from Deputy County Manager, in 2021.

On March 1, Hallam, chair of the county council’s government reform committee, brought in representatives from the district attorney, sheriff, controller, and county manager’s office about their process for salary increases. County Manager McKain received the bulk of the questioning.

At that March hearing, Catena and Hallam inquired about the process for determining pay increases and why some executives received disproportionately larger raises when all county workers were faced with the same pandemic challenges, and some county workers, including people making $15 an hour, threatened to strike for better wages and work conditions. 

McKain said raises are determined on a case-by-case basis with input from department directors. He also stated that competition from the private sector — he called it a “talent war” — necessitated such competitive raises.

“I’m very fortunate to have the position I have, and proud to lead the team that we have here,” McKain said. “And I have no problem with you asking those questions. I’m very proud of what I do and I try to repay the taxpayers and the people I report to — council, the public — by working every day, very hard in delivering services and being a good safeguard of the assets entrusted in our care.”

“I think if you ask the people that report to me, either union or non-union,” he continued, “you’ll find out that I’m very fair.”

McKain said the decision for cost-of-living increases for employees in the executive branch resides with him, and that he talks with directors for any raises beyond that.

When Hallam asked McKain who approves raises for himself, McKain replied “the county executive.”

Fitzgerald appointed McKain, a certified public accountant, Allegheny County manager in August 2012. McKain functions as the county’s chief administrative officer and oversees a budget of some $3 billion. Among his many duties are supervising the executive branch, administering the county’s personnel system, and negotiating labor and other contracts on behalf of the county.

Catena first learned of the executive raises in early 2020. He introduced legislation that July which would require department managers and independently elected county officials to submit an annual salary, along with justifications for merit-based raises and other information. The bill languished in the budget committee before ultimately expiring at the end of 2021. It was reintroduced in Hallam’s government reform committee this January and referred back to the committee by the county council again in May.

The pay increases and proposed ordinance were first reported by WPXI in March. The coverage referred to “hefty pay raises among top county officials,” but did not say specifically who received them.

Acting Allegheny County Controller Tracy Royston said she heard “some grumbling” about the raises but there’s no going back once the budget is approved. She does not support the proposed ordinance in its present form.

“It should not be up to the governing power of council to have that much oversight of salaries,” says Royston. She feels that if individuals believe there should be more scrutiny over raises, a salary board with representation from various offices, similar to one in effect until 2000, would be a more balanced solution.

Both Catena and Hallam note that county pensions are determined by a person’s highest three years of salary. The raises mean that taxpayers will be saddled with higher pension payments long after this administration is gone at the end of 2023.

“You have a chief executive in the final term, giving huge raises to people that probably aren’t going to be with the administration after next year,” says Catena. “I find that very odd and perplexing.”

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He is a 2x 2023 Western PA Press Club Golden Quill award winner, in feature and business reporting. And a 3x finalist in the investigative reporting category.

He is a 2018 first prize winner in environmental reporting from the Keystone Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for reporting on lead in Pittsburgh’s drinking water.

In 2022 and 2021, he was awarded a grant from The Gumshoe Group to support his investigative reporting.