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South Carolina Ports Authority: Failure Is Expensive

Bad results, big bonuses for employees at results-challenged, government-run agency …

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Among the most costly of South Carolina’s ongoing competitive failures is the decline of its once-proud government-run port. A decade ago, the port of Charleston, S.C. was the fourth-busiest facility in the nation. Now? It is not even in the top ten – with the port of Savannah running circles around it.

Years of mismanagement by the politically appointed leaders of the South Carolina Ports Authority (SCPA) is predominantly to blame for the decline – including the agency’s ongoing failure to develop the east coast’s last remaining deepwater port location in Jasper county.

Of course, there was an infamous betrayal by former S.C. governor Nikki Haley to contend with, too … one that gift-wrapped a huge competitive advantage to the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA).

As we’ve said for years, one of the keys to restoring South Carolina’s competitive position on this front involves jettisoning the current port management model – i.e. bickering government appointees – and adopting a landlord-tenant arrangement in its place.

Under such a proposal, private sector firms would be contracted to manage the state’s port infrastructure (with taxpayers retaining ownership of the assets). Such a move – championed by pro-free market lawmakers like state senator Tom Davis – would free up potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in public money for needed infrastructure enhancements (including the proposed Jasper port).

Unfortunately, instead of heeding our advice the SCPA has taken on massive public debt to finance its feeble attempts to keep up with Savannah. Last summer, the agency announced the issuance of $547 million in new revenue bonds – with most of the proceeds earmarked for the new Hugh K. Leatherman terminal in North Charleston, S.C.

As we reported last fall, though, the agency is “still struggling to finance the full project despite the latest borrowing campaign.” Additionally, the Charleston area is running out of room for additional terminal capacity -particularly necessary road and rail infrastructure – which further highlights the need to develop the Jasper county location.

Additionally, the agency has spent hundreds of millions of tax dollars over the past decade on a harbor dredging project of dubious benefit.

While Charleston continues to lose ground to Savannah, the SCPA continues to pay a significant number of six-figure salaries to its employees. According to a recent report from Rick Brundrett of The (Columbia, S.C.) Nerve, there were more than 200 employees at the agency who were paid more than $100,000 (not counting benefits) during the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2020.

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Brundrett also discovered that 596 of the SCPA’s 608 employees making more than $50,000 (not counting benefits) during the last fiscal year received “bonuses or overtime pay.”

In other words 98 percent of them got a raise or a bonus.

The average increase? $16,831.

Fifteen SCPA employees were paid more than $200,000 annually – including chief executive officer Jim Newsome, who drew a salary of $546,236 during the previous fiscal year. Newsome was not awarded a bonus in 2020, but SCPA subsidizes a $1,000 monthly car allowance, “reasonable” home purchase expenses, four weeks of paid vacation, a country club membership and a dining club membership, according to Brundrett.

Other top port officials saw huge salary bumps last year, including chief operating officer Barbara Melvin – who saw her pay increase by $67,031 to $405,531 (again, not counting benefits).

The port’s information technology director saw a $168,000 pay increase last year (bringing his salary to $348,700 a year, not counting benefits) while the port’s general manager for software development received a $114,125 pay raise (bringing his salary to $251,625 annually, not counting benefits).


Per Brundrett, here is the full list of salaries and raises/ bonus payments for SCPA officials making more than $200,000 annually …

  • Jim Newsome, president and CEO: $546,236 ($0);
  • Barbara Melvin, chief operating officer: $405,531 ($67,031);
  • Stephen Rauch, information technology director: $348,700 ($168,000);
  • Phillip Padgett: senior vice president, finance/administration: $302,950 ($68,750);
  • Paul McClintock, senior vice president, sales/marketing: $289,436 ($0);
  • Richard Spahr, general manager, software development/application systems: $251,625 ($114,125);
  • Michael Stresemann, senior director, crane/equipment maintenance: $238,949 ($46,250);
  • Beverly Cowart, senior vice president, talent solutions: $238,046 ($40,000);
  • Byron Miller, national accounts director: $222,950 ($43,250);
  • Walter Lagarenne, engineering/permitting director: $212,699 ($41,000);
  • Micah Mallace, national accounts director: $211,700 ($40,000);
  • Abrahim Abdul Kareem, application systems manager: $211,655 ($94,875);
  • William Crowther, customer service director: $209,700 ($40,500);
  • Jordi Yarborough, senior vice president, external affairs: $209,200 ($0);
  • Robert Mozdean, senior vice president, human resources: $204,498 ($42,921)

Brundrett had to request all of this information through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request as SCPA is one of several state agencies currently exempt from providing this information via the state salary database, which is administered by the S.C. Department of Administration (SCDOA).

That is one of the first things we believe should change in 2021 …

No agency receiving public funds should be allowed to withhold salaries from this online database. In fact, we believe these payments should be part of a comprehensive online checkbook accessible to the public 24/7/365.

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As for the huge pay increases, as we noted in a recent story about another government agency which performs non-core functions of government, we believe they are “tone deaf” given the economic plight facing so many of our citizens heading into 2021.

The coronavirus pandemic and its subsequent societal shutdowns have wreaked havoc on businesses across our state … and for entrenched bureaucrats doing non-essential work (at an underperforming agency) to reward themselves at the public’s expense is inexcusable.

Like the $5 million in raises doled out last year to employees of Santee Cooper – the state’s scandal-ravaged, government-run power provider – these salary bumps are similarly unwarranted.

Port officials were not immediately available to comment on the salaries. In the event we do receive a response from the agency, we will be more than happy to provide it to our readers. Also, we have an open microphone policy – which means port officials are welcome at any time to share their thoughts on our coverage (or proactively address any other issues they feel would be of interest to our readers).

What do you think of these salaries? Vote in our poll and post your thoughts in our always entertaining comments section below …

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