If monorail revenues continue to come in, as they have for the past several months, about one-third under predictions, Seattle Monorail Project planners may find themselves looking for drastic cost-saving measures. One place they might consider cutting is the agency's payroll, which has ballooned since last December, when the monorail project adopted a $58.5 million first-year budget that included $5.5 million for salaries and benefits for 40 to 45 employees. That budget was amended upward by 47 percent this past April, to $86 million; simultaneously, the SMP's staffing level increased to nearly 70 full- and part-time employees.

Monorail spokesperson Paul Bergman explains the agency's swelling payroll as an investment that will pay off in the future: By doing a lot of the initial design work itself, the SMP hopes to save money on its "design-build-operate-maintain" contract, to be awarded in 2004. Doing work now that would otherwise be done by contractors later, Bergman says, could "lower the amount of contingency [wiggle room for unexpected costs] the contractors will place in their bids."

But that explanation doesn't answer another, more significant question: Why are average salaries at the SMP so much higher than those at similar public agencies, like Sound Transit? Of the monorail agency's full-timers, 18 make over $100,000 a year; nearly 50 make $50,000 or more. The salaries range from $29,000 to $172,000 (SMP director Joel Horn's salary); the average salary, at around $75,000, is nearly 20 percent higher than the $63,000 average made by Sound Transit's full-time employees. "We felt the salary ranges were reasonable [compared to] what other transit agencies were doing," Bergman says, noting that salaries are still less than one percent of the project's total estimated cost.

In addition to its own 69 employees, the SMP also funds 10 positions at the city, at a total cost through 2004 of $3 million. Ethan Melone, the city's monorail program manager, says the city and the SMP will sign another $3 million agreement at the end of October, to fund another 10 positions through 2004.

barnett@thestranger.com

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