Retiring Georgia ports chief leaves with boatload in compensation

Curtis Foltz recently retired as executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority and walked away with $2 million in salary, bonuses, pension and other fees, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Foltz will receive an additional $1.1 million this year in consultant fees and pension payments from the authority that runs the state-owned ports. And the 56-year-old shipping and logistics expert will benefit from $630,000 in pension payments each year for the rest of his life.

Critics expressed outrage over the “sweetheart deal” given Foltz, particularly at a time of slowly rising wages nationwide and calls by the governor for state agencies to, yet again, keep expenses in check. While the payments to Foltz don’t come from state coffers, taxpayers are subsidizing the ports of Savannah and Brunswick with hundreds of millions of dollars for construction projects.

“Wow — I’m in the wrong business. This is overly generous, to put it mildly,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington. “It’s hard to justify something like this for one individual. (Port) officials need to recognize this is a public agency and needs to operate as such.”

Few question Foltz’s business bona fides. For six years he ran one of the nation’s fastest-growing, most-efficient ports. Savannah is the nation’s fourth-busiest container port. Savannah and Brunswick support thousands of jobs and $16 billion in direct economic impact to Georgia’s economy each year, according to a 2012 report by the University of Georgia.

“When you talk about (Foltz’s compensation) numbers, you say, ‘Gosh, that is a big number.’ There’s no doubt about that,” said Jimmy Allgood, the chairman of the GPA board. But he called it “fair compensation.”

“Honestly,” Allgood said, “I don’t know that there’s a better terminal operator in the world.”

Foltz spent a dozen years at the ports, the past six as executive director in Savannah, dubbed “Atlanta’s Port” due to proximity and volume of cargo that passes between the cities. He managed 1,100 employees, attracted numerous shipping lines and helped shepherd the $706 million deepening of the Savannah River. GPA revenue rose from $267 million in 2011 to $346 million in 2016.

Foltz was richly rewarded for his service, according to documents obtained by the AJC via an open records request. He earned $470,000 in salary the past fiscal year. He was given two “key employee annual bonuses,” one for $400,000, the other for $250,000. He received $630,000 in deferred compensation — his annual pension — under an “executive long-term incentive plan.”

Foltz also received nearly $92,000 in unused sick pay and vacation pay. Vacation days he didn’t take from previous years added up to an additional $20,000. He was given more than $64,000 to cover his own pension payments. And the board decided Foltz could keep his authority-issued 2010 Ford Expedition.

The total package: $1,947,070.

“The numbers are staggering. My jaw literally dropped when I heard that,” said William Perry, the former director of Common Cause Georgia. “No matter what the benefit, it’s one of those things that completely ruins citizens’ belief in government doing the best it can for the people of this state.”

A GPA spokesman said Foltz declined to comment.

Jen Talaber Ryan, a spokeswoman for Gov. Nathan Deal, said the governor, who made $139,339 last year, “does not run, chair or serve on the Georgia ports’ compensation committee.”

She added, “He does appoint individuals who he feels will bring professional business experience, such as Bob Jepson, to serve in leadership roles.”

Jepson, a former member of the GPA board and compensation committee chairman who signed off on Foltz’s pay package, said that “five years ago a competitor really wanted to take Curtis, so we needed some form of long-term incentive program for those who made the port so successful.”

“We’re not paying outlandish money here,” he added. “It’s just the nature of the business.”

Jepson likens the authority to a quasi-public agency run like a private business. Shipping lines pay the authority to move cargo in and out of Savannah and Brunswick, and those fees cover the ports’ operations. Tax dollars don’t support the ports’ day-to-day operations. Salaries and most other expenses, including the purchase of mega-cranes and terminal improvements, come from shipping-line revenue.

But the GPA, ultimately, reports to the governor. Workers are considered state employees. The ports pay no state or local property taxes. Georgia taxpayers have already ponied up $261 million to deepen the Savannah River, and the Legislature spends millions more on road improvements and other capital projects that benefit the ports.

“Some of the projects (Foltz) is getting credit for are due to taxpayers,” said Ellis with the anti-tax group. “Taxpayers on the state and federal level have to kick in money for projects he’s pushed and getting compensated for in this golden parachute.”

Jepson and Allgood say Foltz’s compensation package is in line with the salary, pension and bonuses given other port directors. The port directors in South Carolina and Virginia earned $420,000 and $450,000, respectively, in 2014, for example. The GPA routinely hires an employee benefits firm to compare salaries and benefits offered by ports across the country. Its findings persuaded the GPA board to boost Foltz’s overall compensation package, Jepson said.

Foltz started as a GPA consultant July 1 and will advise the authority on shipping and logistics, as well as the river deepening and the future port of Jasper to be built by Georgia and South Carolina. He’ll earn $1.1 million this fiscal year: $470,000 for his consultant work and $630,000 in pension.

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