May 21, 2024

The Nerve Archive

Where Government Gets Exposed

Top Capital City Staffers Paid Well

Columbia SkylineThe Capital City’s highest-ranking employees collectively are making top dollar compared to their counterparts in other large urban areas in the state, a review by The Nervehas found.

The top-10 earners in Columbia make a combined total of more than $1.3 million. In Charleston, it’s $1.2 million. In Greenville and Spartanburg, it’s $1.23 million and more than $900,000 respectively.

Most city managers, attorneys, high-ranking police and fire officials, and other top city staffers in those areas earn from high five-figure to low six-figure salaries, according to municipal records and the most recently available information from salary databases maintained by local media.

Their listed salaries do not include any benefits.

City Manager Steve Gantt, for example, tops Columbia’s list with an annual salary of $175,000, according to The State newspaper’s salary database as of July 1; while Mayor Joe Riley is Charleston’s highest earner at $162,815, 2012 city budget records show. But there are plenty of municipal employees who don’t earn anywhere close to them.

In Columbia, for example, the average income for an entry-level firefighter with no experience is $28,300; and city fighters are complaining about low pay, according to a report by WIS-TV. In comparison, most Charleston firefighters earn from $26,000 to $42,000 annually, city records show.

Mayoral salaries vary as well. Columbia’s Mayor Steve Benjamin, for example, makes $17,500 yearly, according to a recent story in The State; while Greenville Mayor Knox White earns $18,207 annually, according to a salary database maintained by

So why does the Charleston mayor make $140,000-plus more than his counterparts in Columbia and Greenville?

College of Charleston economics professor Frank Hefner says that unlike the other cities in The Nerve’sreview, Charleston is the only one that does not have a city manager, contending that Riley fulfills that roll.

“If you take Columbia’s city manager and add mayor to it, you’d get pretty much an equivalent position to Mayor Joe Riley,” Hefner told The Nerve.Hefner said city managers typically earn top pay because, simply put, they run a city.

“If you look at any institution with a budget and workforce, then you would see someone who’s managing it getting highly paid,” he said.

In Columbia, the mayor’s position is “not a strong political position,” University of South Carolina economics professor McKinley Blackburn told The Nerve. 

“Benjamin doesn’t have as much power as the city council,” he said.”There are also city managers who have a lot of responsibilities.”

Benjamin, who is also an attorney, is considered a part-time mayor. Blackburn said he believes it takes someone who cares about the city to work for low pay and have relatively little power.

“With low pay like that, you’re still attracting good people based on the qualifications the job requires,” Blackburn said. “It’s not the pay. It’s the motivation.”

Although there are plenty of well-paid staffers in South Carolina’s largest cities, they don’t come close to what top state university and college officials make, as The Nerve previously reported.

Following is a comparison of salaries between top-paid staffers in Columbia and Charleston:


City of Columbia Employees

Steve Gantt City Manager $175,000
Kenneth Gaines City Attorney $138,679
Allison Baker Senior Asst. City Manager $136,680
Robert Cooper Senior Asst. City Attorney $134,662
Dana Turner Chief Admin. Judge $131,448
James Gambrell Econ. Development Director $120,293
Teresa (Florence) Wilson Asst. City Manager $119,850
Melissa Smith Gentry Public Works Admin. $119,850
Aubrey Jenkins Fire Chief $112,200
Randall Scott Police Chief $112,200

Source: The State newspaper’s local salaries database, as of July 1, 2012


City of Charleston Employees

Joe Riley Mayor $162,815
Gregory Mullen Police Chief $144,545
Karen Brack Fire Chief $137,000
Stephen Bedard Chief Financial Officer $135,200
Laura Cabiness Director Public Service $108,657
Adelaide Andrews Corporation Counsel-Deputy $107,167
Mary Ann Sullivan Senior Advisor to the mayor $106,518
Henry Lesesne SeniorAdvisor to the mayor $103,510
John Ratterree Chief Information Officer $101,048
Timothy Keane Planning, Preservation Director $100,930

Source:  City of Charleston’s 2012 budget salaries list, local media reports

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