BROOKSVILLE — To an electorate battered by recession, beleaguered by high unemployment and uptight about the nation's budget deficit, the news that members of Congress are still giving bonuses to staffers might cause jaws to clench.
But that's what happened, and former U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite was among them.
Giving bonuses at the end of the year was nothing new for the Brooksville Republican as she represented the sprawling 5th District. For years, Brown-Waite rewarded her aides with big bonuses in the fourth quarter, a practice continued during the toughest fiscal times in a generation.
But last year, the four-term incumbent who stepped aside due to health issues — and who says she is now feeling better and mulling a political comeback at the local or state level — was especially generous.
In a Wall Street Journal story published March 7, Brown-Waite was mentioned as one of dozens of departing lawmakers whose payrolls increased dramatically in the fourth quarter before they left office due to retirement or an election defeat.
The paper used data released by the House a few days prior and compiled by LegiStorm.com, an organization that tracks congressional salaries.
Many members of Congress give bonuses at the end of the year. But the 96 departing lawmakers — most of them Democrats — paid their employees $6.7 million, or 31 percent, more in the fourth quarter of 2010 than they did, on average, in the first three quarters of the year, the Journal reported.
That's roughly double the 16 percent compensation increase awarded by lawmakers who returned to Congress, suggesting that the departing members used remaining funds in their budgets to give bonuses for staffers before they left Washington, the report said.
Brown-Waite's payroll in the fourth quarter of 2010 jumped by about $204,000, bringing the total for the year to $1.02 million, according to LegiStorm. The average compensation for her staff in the first three quarters was $13,516. The average compensation in the fourth quarter shot to $29,768, a 120 percent increase.
That ranked Brown-Waite No. 1 among 434 lawmakers for fourth-quarter increases, LegiStorm concluded.
Reached by the St. Petersburg Times, the Brooksville Republican tried to put the numbers in perspective.
"The public isn't going to be able to relate to any kind of bonuses in this economy," Brown-Waite acknowledged. "But they need to remember I turned back that much money to the Treasury. I've always given back, every single year, even with bonuses."
In fact, records show Brown-Waite in 2010 had about $242,000 left over from her $1.57 million office budget, or member allowance. The figure returned to the Treasury was closer to $227,000 after all outstanding bills were paid, she said.
At the end of 2009, the first year the House posted the data online, Brown-Waite had $152,000 still remaining of her $1.53 million allowance.
Previous years' figures, kept on file in Washington, D.C., were not readily available last week, but Brown-Waite said she returned about $755,000 over the course of her eight-year career in Congress.
She said she paid her staffers less than other members did, particularly Florida representatives, and took a conservative approach to budgeting each year to ensure a financial cushion for unforeseen events.
"If the computers in the Brooksville office are hit by lightning, we have to cover that," she said.
As the year drew to a close, Brown-Waite would assess her coffers and the performance of each staff member and hand out bonuses accordingly. That helped motivate her workers and stem the high turnover rates typically seen among congressional aides, she said.
"If you don't pay them what other offices are paying, then you're going to lose good staff members," she said. "The only way to keep them is if we run the office frugally (and give) year-end increases in their salaries. If you didn't work hard, you either got fired or you didn't earn a bonus."
The compensation figures indicate Brown-Waite's salaries without bonuses were about average compared to other members of Congress. Her salaries for 2010 fell roughly in the middle — 212 of 434 — when the data is sorted by average compensation for the first three quarters of the year.
The management strategy worked, Brown-Waite said. Her staff as a whole was loyal and hardworking.
"You can drive by the office on Spring Hill Drive, and while the office may be locked, the majority of staff is there after 5," she said. "I used to have to chase them home."
Some examples of fourth-quarter increases, according to a review of the data by the Times:
• Brown-Waite gave her longtime district director Shirley Anderson a roughly $20,000 bonus in the fourth quarter of 2010. Anderson's title changed near the end of the year, from district director to deputy chief of staff, and so did her responsibility level, Brown-Waite said. Anderson's total compensation for the year totaled $105,824.96.
But Anderson got comparable bonuses in previous years, too. In 2009, as district director, she received an average of $22,600 per quarter. Her fourth quarter compensation that year: $39,999, with total compensation of $108,416.
In 2008, Anderson was paid $98,730, with $38,049 of that coming in the fourth quarter.
• Legislative director Harrison Lewis was promoted to that job in 2010. During the third quarter — his first full quarter in the position — Lewis' compensation was $14,000. In the fourth, that figure more than doubled, to $32,000.
• Chief of staff Justin Grabelle also was promoted to that position last year, and in his first full quarter on the job earned $20,000. His fourth quarter compensation: $39,603.75.
• Executive assistant Courtney Cannon earned an average of $13,466 in each of the first three quarters of 2010. Her compensation in the fourth quarter: $41,408, bringing her total pay to $82,068.
• And constituent services representative Janice Laxton last year earned an average of $11,310 in the first three quarters, then $32,999 in the fourth quarter, bringing her total pay to $66,666.67.
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U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent, the Spring Hill Republican and former Hernando County sheriff handpicked by Brown-Waite to run for the seat last year, said he understands his predecessor's management considerations.
As sheriff, he had to make sure he kept salaries competitive to avoid losing good deputies to agencies in nearby counties such as Pasco, and he said he will have to take the same care in Congress.
Now he is among the vocal freshman class of GOP House members demanding deep cuts in the budget to stem the increasing national debt.
Nugent is taking a different approach to compensation.
He said he kept base salaries consistent with what Brown-Waite paid without the bonus. However, he will forgo annual bonuses and bump up base salaries through annual raises when deserved.
"I pay people what I believe the market value is, and evaluate them after a year of service and say, "Okay, when the new year starts, do I have to relook at their salary to be competitive?" Nugent said.
For Nugent, the issue is more than philosophical and political, it's personal — he kept most of Brown-Waite's staff, though some shifted roles. Anderson is still district director and Grabelle is chief of staff, but Lewis, for example, is now communications director.
Without the bonuses, Nugent's approach translates to pay cuts for some staffers who are doing the same job they did for Brown-Waite, according to a list of salaries Nugent's office provided to the Times.
Anderson's salary as district director is $90,000. Laxton's is $44,000. And constituent services representative Erin Stacy, who was paid $66,149 last year under Brown-Waite, now will be paid $40,000.
Grabelle will be paid $120,000, and Lewis' salary is $60,000.
Nugent's total payroll: $753,500,
Nugent agreed his crew works hard, saying it's one of the main reasons he kept his predecessor's staff intact.
"They certainly deserve every penny they're getting paid," he said.
But even merit raises are probably unlikely for now.
"In this economy, I didn't give raises to any employees for the last two years (at the Sheriff's Office), and I think we're going to be in the same predicament here," he said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or email@example.com.