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Convention center chief agrees to pay cut

Rooney to make $250,000 as state targets agencies’ top salaries

By Todd Wallack
Globe Staff / April 1, 2011

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Governor Deval Patrick made a major inroad in his effort to reduce sky-high compensation packages at the state’s independent agencies.

Massachusetts Convention Center Authority executive director James E. Rooney, who oversees Boston’s two main convention centers, agreed to a new contract that includes a 9 percent salary cut, plus steep decreases in severance and bonus pay, Patrick officials said yesterday.

Under his new three-year contract, Rooney will earn $250,000 a year, compared with the $276,000 annual salary he received under the terms of a previous contract that expired in 2009.

The Patrick administration has questioned whether the six-figure salaries for agency executives such as Rooney are out of step with other positions in state government, especially at a time when the government is slashing funding for public services because of the economic downturn.

With Patrick’s appointees on the convention center board pressing the governor’s case, Rooney said he agreed to the reduction in pay because of the times.

“Nobody likes to take a pay cut,’’ Rooney said. But “I understand that times have changed, and the economy and the fiscal condition of government is much different than it was in 2006, the last time I signed a contract. I get it.’’

Rooney is the first independent authority chief to agree to a salary cut since the governor last year launched a broad review of the pay and perks for top officials at dozens of quasi-public agencies, many of whom earn far more than the $140,000 Patrick is paid. A special commission Patrick appointed in 2009 singled out several agencies for offering excessive terms on some benefits, such as severance pay and cashing in unused sick days. When Massachusetts Port Authority executive director Thomas J. Kinton Jr. announced his retirement in February, the agency disclosed he will receive $459,000 for unused sick time.

“We are trying to focus on what is an appropriate competitive salary,’’ said Gregory Bialecki, secretary of housing and economic development, who has served as the governor’s point person on the matter.

Bialecki said Rooney was the first existing executive to take a pay cut because his current contract was already in the process of being renegotiated — not because his pay package stood out. The administration plans to eventually review the salaries of senior executives at other quasi-public agencies, Bialecki added.

The Patrick administration has also replaced several people running the independent agencies with new leaders at lower pay over the past several years.

In addition to his $250,000 salary, the 53-year old Rooney will be eligible for an annual bonus of up to 10 percent of his salary, down from 33 percent under the old contract. Future pay raises will now be determined by the convention center board; he received an automatic 4 percent salary hike every year under his old contract. And in the event he is fired, Rooney would be eligible for three months of severance pay, compared with the old contract, which called for him to be paid through the end of its term.

Rooney has run the authority since 2003. But he is a career government employee who enjoys a rich perk of the public sector: a $68,000-per-year pension from the MBTA, where he worked for 18 years, his last position as deputy general manager.

After the release of the commission report in 2009, the convention center directors began exploring a new contract for Rooney at lower pay, said Michelle A. Shell, the authority’s chairwoman and a Patrick appointee. Shell said the board also wanted to make sure Rooney’s pay was in line with those of other convention agencies around the country.

Shell also stressed that the board was happy with Rooney’s performance and pleased to work out a deal. The new contract is expected to be ratified by the board on April 14.

“We have great respect for Jim,0 and we are pleased with all the work he has done,’’ Shell said.

The agency oversees the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center, the Boston Common parking garage, and the MassMutual Center in Springfield. It has 210 employees and a $58 million annual budget.

Rooney is leading the charge for a massive expansion of the convention hall in South Boston that, with the addition of new hotel, could cost as much as $2 billion. Rooney and others have said the expansion may require increasing tourist-targeted taxes and fees.

Stephen P. Crosby, who led the compensation review at the agencies, said he was pleased the convention authority directors reduced Rooney’s benefits. Crosby noted his commission did not find Rooney’s previous salary to be unreasonable, given his job and background.

“They addressed the issues that we had some concerns about, particularly the severance,’’ said Crosby, dean of the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “The base salary [cut] seems to be cosmetic to try to adhere to the spirit of the governor’s initiative and the tenor of the times. On the whole, I think it is pretty responsible.’’

Todd Wallack of the Globe staff can be reached at twallack@globe.com.