As York County deals with layoffs and budget cuts, directors at the county's Culture & Heritage Museums are facing questions over whether their salaries are too high.
Director and CEO Van Shields earns $121,305 annually, making him the second-highest paid employee affiliated with the county behind County Manager Jim Baker. Five deputy directors together earn more than $340,000.
Some former staffers and current elected officials say it's too much money. They argue the museum has too many highly-paid senior staffers - and that the same programs and services could be provided with fewer administrators.
"It's a puzzle to me exactly what the taxpayers are getting for a huge investment," said former museum director Wayne Clark, who preceded Shields in the 1990s. "It's totally out of sync with what the people are getting.... This looks like some sort of corporate structure."
Museum board members and Shields defend the salaries, arguing they are consistent with museum organizations of similar size. They cite two recent salary comparison studies as evidence.
"There's no factual basis for any such argument that folks are overpaid," said board chairman Jim Johnston. "We look at national data (from) peer museums and other institutions. What their directors are getting paid is in line with us - or more than us."
Baker: Salaries are reasonable
In response to the recent criticism, County Manager Jim Baker did his own study and reached the same conclusion as Johnston.
According to Baker, Shields and five deputy directors are paid less overall than the top six earners at York County government and York Technical College. Baker also said the average is higher for the top six school district officials in York County.
"I can find no indication that the CHM salaries are above or outside the range that might be typical for similar jobs in similar circumstances," Baker concluded in a report to County Council members.
The debate has emerged as part of a larger conflict over museum management. A group of former historians and archaeologists went public earlier this year to allege a hostile workplace in which senior managers discouraged an open exchange of ideas and concerns.
Museum leaders denied the charge, saying the criticism came from a few ex-employees who left on poor terms.
Additionally, scrutiny of government spending has intensified during a time of cutbacks and layoffs. The museum deserves a hard look given the grim budget outlook, said County Councilman Joe Cox, a frequent museum critic who lost his seat in a June Republican primary.
"I don't see this economy changing for the next five years," Cox said. "It's going to be a budget strain all the way through. At the end of the day, we've got to relieve some of the burden on things that are non-essential."
Larger budget, more duties
The museum had a $4.1 million budget in 2009-10, with $3 million from York County taxpayers and the remainder from state tourism funds, memberships, donations, fundraisers and other sources, Johnston said.
When Shields was hired in 1996, his starting salary was $65,000. The museum's budget was $1.5 million.
Clark, who held the top job from 1991 to 1995, says he earned about half what Shields now makes and worked with a senior staff that consisted of a development officer and community relations specialist.
York County leaders have said they bolstered the ranks of museum management in the mid-2000s largely to prepare for a move to the Museum of Life and Environment, a state-of-the-art venue planned on the banks of the Catawba River.
The new museum was put on hold amid the recession, prompting some critics to question whether the staffing increases were premature.
"They got the cart before the horse, didn't they?" said Clark. "It seems to me a classic case of overreach."
A review by The Herald of similar museums and historic foundations in the Carolinas shows Shields earns more than counterparts at places such as the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte ($118,377) and the Historic Columbia Foundation ($85,000) - but less than the director of the Charleston Museum of History ($143,441).
Cox said the issue is not just about numbers. Shields and his deputies, Cox contends, have notched few achievements over the past 10 years to justify their salary levels.
"I don't see what they're accomplishing," Cox said.
Museum officials point to signs of growth and progress. Construction has started on a children's museum in downtown Rock Hill inspired by the drawings of late local artist Vernon Grant.
On Aug. 14, the museum's main venue on Mount Gallant Road will mark its 60th birthday with a safari-themed celebration that pays tribute to its attractions and heritage.
Shields oversees 75 employees and a network of venues including Historic Brattonsville and the Museum of York County.
Johnston said the museum's senior leaders choose to work for York County because they are passionate about their jobs, not because they make a lot of money.
"They like working for a nonprofit, as opposed to the rat race, corporate stuff," he said. "We certainly are blessed to have a good staff."
What other directors make:
Levine Museum of the New South (Charlotte) $118,377
Charleston Museum of History $143,441
Upcountry History Museum (Greenville) $92,000
Another museum agency:
Historic Columbia Foundation manages seven sites. Five are owned by the city or Richland County. Two are owned by the foundation.
The group has 12 full time employees and 15 part time employees.
The executive director makes an annual salary of $85,000.
Four departmental directors earn salaries from $42,000 to $55,000.
Positions are administration and finance, development, programs and cultural resources.