The Tucson region has seen a lot of bad economic numbers in the last five years. Unemployment has surged. Housing values have plummeted. Jobs are scarce.

But one set of numbers that has held steady can be found on paychecks at Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities.

In a county where the median household income is about $44,000, as recent U.S. Census numbers show, compensation at TREO is staggering.

Let's start with President and CEO Joe Snell, who earned $313,407 in 2009, which is the most recent tax filing available on the website. Snell earned a base salary of $232,117 that year. His bonus of $58,260 was more than many families in the Tucson region make in a year. The rest is in deferred compensation and nontaxable benefits.

Unemployment in Pima County might have surged from 3 to 9.6 percent between 2007 and 2009, but Snell's bottom line stayed about the same: $304,923 in 2007, $281,079 in 2008 and then $313,407 in 2009, tax forms show.

In an interview last week, he said his current base salary is $204,000 plus a performance bonus and deferred compensation.

By comparison, his peers at similar economic development agencies in Albuquerque, Denver and Anchorage earned between $151,000 and $173,000 in total compensation in 2009, tax records show.

Snell, 48 with a degree in English from the University of Nebraska, said the TREO board's compensation committee sets his contract based on comparisons with other economic development agencies. The bonus is based on his ability to show leadership, financial management and meet program goals.

Tax forms show other TREO executives and officers also in the $100,000 club. Besides Snell, four people in 2009 had salaries and benefits ranging from $117,400 to $151,800, the agency's 990 form shows. And so it goes.

What makes the compensation packages even more eye-catching is that between 2007 and 2009, TREO's revenues declined from about $4 million to $2 million, tax forms show. And yet total employee compensation remained in the $1.4 million range.

Snell said TREO has adjusted to tough times by shrinking its staff from 25 to 10, and that while it used to be largely publicly funded, it now gets most of its support from the private sector. This shift was in the plans all along.

"The private sector is a great validation of whether you do a great job or not because they only vote with their money," he said. "And we are doing very well in the private sector."

The TREO board is a veritable country club filled with the region's heavy hitters in government and business. Members pay $25,000 to join the board. But that pales in comparison to the exclusive Chairman's Circle.

"Over the years, what I've realized are big players, CEOs of companies, we charge $50,000," Snell said of the circle. "They can't make board meetings or are in New York all the time, you know, living the lives that none of us do. But they want to have a say in shaping economic policy."

Talk about the 1 percent.

This pay-to-play structure troubles Robert L. Davis, a commercial broker with Grubb & Ellis, because TREO operates on private and public funds. It also cuts out people in the business community who don't have the cash.

"You can spend $50,000, but it doesn't mean you should have a greater voice than Jim Smith," he said. "I offered to do a big amount a year if they would just list all of their investors in alphabetical order" and create a separate, independent board of members chosen for their skill, not their wealth. "That went over like a lead balloon."

One of the big criticisms of Snell and TREO is simply being missing in action.

"I don't see them," Pima County Supervisor Richard Elías told me.

"I don't see him out in the community very often," Davis said.

"We don't know what's going on," Marana Mayor Ed Honea said back in 2008 when Marana bolted from TREO. "We're really not apprised of what's happening on a month-to-month basis. It seems like we just send a check, and that's it."

Funny, you may never hear those three men agree on anything again.

But you may hear similar sentiments from Pima County and the city of Tucson. Funding for TREO from Pima County has dropped from nearly $1.2 million in 2007-08 to $350,000 this year. Over at the city, unrestricted funds have fallen from nearly $1.5 million in 2007 and 2008 to $520,000 this year.

"When a city invests $520,000 anywhere, it has to make sure it's a good investment," Mayor-elect Jonathan Rothschild said. "I want to give TREO specific (performance) markers. ... What is the return on that dollar?"

Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities was formed in 2005 with the goal of luring new businesses to the region while retaining our own.

But in these times, it sure looks like a local symbol of wealth disparity and self-preservation.

Contact Josh Brodesky at 573-4242 or