Driving the Bus all the Way to the Bank

Investment bankers and lawyers, move aside. If you want a truly high-powered salary, try driving a bus. Last year, the Madison, Wisconsin’s highest paid city employee was…a bus driver. The Wisconsin State-Journal reports:

Madison’s highest paid city government employee last year wasn’t the mayor. It wasn’t the police chief. It wasn’t even the head of Metro Transit.

It was bus driver John E. Nelson.

Nelson earned $159,258 in 2009, including $109,892 in overtime and other pay.

He and his colleague, driver Greg Tatman, who earned $125,598, were among the city’s top 20 earners for 2009, city records show.

They’re among the seven bus drivers who made more than $100,000 last year thanks to a union contract that lets the most senior drivers who have the highest base salaries get first crack at overtime.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a freak occurrence, but an egregious example of a nationwide problem. During the 1990s boom years, many state and local governments spent the additional tax revenues from increased economic activity nearly as fast as they came in. As a result, many state and local governments face severe budget problems today.

As the State-Journal notes, Madison has taken some steps to curtail overtime, but such baby steps will be hardly enough for cities that hope to avoid the fate of Vallejo, California, which declared bankruptcy in 2008. The salary escalator contract provisions that led to outlandish salaries in Madison and Vallejo — far beyond anything comparable in the private sector — have been codified in government employee unions’ collective bargaining agreements across the country.

For more on public sector unions, see here and here.