Georgia official may get big pension boost to go with $100,000 raise

On Tuesday the State Transportation Board will consider a $100,000 raise for Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry.
On Tuesday the State Transportation Board will consider a $100,000 raise for Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry.

A proposal to give a whopping pay raise to Georgia’s top transportation official, for the second year in a row, won’t just affect his salary. It could mean tens of thousands of dollars more in retirement income.

On Tuesday, the State Transportation Board will consider a 40 percent raise for Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry. Under the proposal, his pay would rise from $250,000 to $350,000 a year – far more than top transportation officials in other states examined by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

It would be the second big raise in a row for McMurry, who was hired for the job in 2015 at a salary of $185,000.

But the extra take-home pay is just part of the benefit. McMurry would also get a big boost in his state-funded pension, which is based in part on his top two years of earnings. If he retired after 30 years with the state with a top salary of $350,000 for two years, he’d make $210,000 annually in pension benefits.

That’s an extra $99,000 annually more than the pension he’d have earned if he’d retired at a top salary of $185,000, according to AJC calculations.

McMurry’s pension is not a matter of public record, so the AJC’s estimate is based on his time served as a state employee. The size of his pension could be affected by getting more raises, working longer or retiring early.

State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, criticized the proposed raise. She said employees doing road maintenance and repairs in Georgia earn “paltry wages.”

“In their shoes, how would you feel about seeing GDOT Commissioner McMurry get a 40 percent raise when they went seven years with no raise at all?” Orrock asked. “I think the board’s action is tone deaf and, frankly, indefensible.”

McMurry declined to comment through a GDOT spokesman.

State Transportation Board member Robert Brown Jr., who just finished a term as chairman, said McMurry deserves the raises. Among other things, he cited the commissioner's strong leadership through crises this year like the collapse of the I-85 bridge last spring in Atlanta and the buckling of I-20 during that same period.

Some have questioned GDOT's own role in the fire that destroyed the section of I-85. The agency stored fiber-optic cable under the bridge for years – material that went up in flames when a homeless man allegedly set a fire beneath the bridge.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the State Fire Marshal are still reviewing the incident. The material was stored beneath the bridge long before McMurry became GDOT commissioner in 2015.

Brown said the bridge-storage issue did not make him think twice about giving McMurry a big raise. He cited the commissioner's leadership in reopening the highway just six weeks after it collapsed. His work also has been recognized by President Donald Trump and U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

Brown also cited McMurry’s management style.

“He’s instilled in his people that they have the wherewithal to get things done,” he said.

Brown has served on the State Transformation Board for more than 10 years, and he said GDOT is in “the best shape I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”

McMurry serves at the pleasure of the transportation board. He started as an engineering trainee at GDOT in 1990. He rose through the ranks, serving as a construction project manager, district engineer, director of engineering and chief engineer before becoming commissioner.

At $350,000 a year, he would earn far more than the top transportation officials in several other states the AJC surveyed. Their salaries ranged from $150,000 a year in Florida to $201,869 in California.

However, McMurry would make less than MARTA CEO Keith Parker, whose base salary is $369,220. Several state university administrators and other state officials also earn more than $350,000.