The new general manager for the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit district, a veteran Marin County public works administrator, has a compensation package that puts him near the top of the pay scale for North Bay public officials.

Farhad Mansourian will be paid $246,000 a year in salary, receive an additional $36,900 in deferred compensation and $29,888 in benefit and expense allowances.

It is a 40 percent increase over the $176,000 annual salary of the previous general manager.

SMART officials said Wednesday they are convinced Mansourian is the best person for the job of building the commute rail line between Sonoma and Marin counties.

They also said the pay is necessary to get someone who is qualified to do the job, even though Mansourian doesn't have a railroad background.

"What he brings is a knowledge of Sonoma and Marin counties, a knowledge of public works management and a knowledge of administration," said SMART Chairwoman and Sonoma County Supervisor Valerie Brown. "Having someone who knows how to run a train can be brought on board later."

SMART critics question whether the compensation is fiscally responsible.

"The substantial increase in salary and benefits are a concern, especially for someone without rail experience," said Clay Mitchell of Windsor, a member of Repeal SMART.

"And it is our understanding their stated goal was to get someone with rail experience. While by all accounts he has a track record of pursing large public works projects and getting them done, the staff seems light on the rail side," Mitchell said.

The Repeal SMART group is planning to gather signatures in a bid to qualify a ballot initiative that would overturn the quarter-percent sales tax passed by Sonoma-Marin voters in 2008 to pay for the railroad.

Critics say SMART is not delivering on its promise to build a 70-mile Cloverdale-to-Larkspur line by 2014. Instead, the agency, beset by a funding shortfall attributed to the recession, has scaled down its plans and is moving ahead with a $360million line between Santa Rosa and San Rafael.

It also has warned that the start of commute train service could be delayed by one to two years.

Mansourian did not returns calls to his cellphone Wednesday requesting comment.

As Marin County's public works director, Mansourian, 57, earned $213,000. The county also paid $15,000 for medical coverage and $37,670 in retirement costs and other allowances.

The SMART board on Monday selected Mansourian as the general manager, filling a slot that had been vacant since Lillian Hames retired in January.

Hames had been the general manager for nine years.

Mansourian had been on loan to the commute rail agency in a temporary position of executive director to review costs and revenues while retaining minimum job duties in Marin.

Mansourian on Monday informed the chairman of the Marin County Board of Supervisors of his intention to leave to work for SMART, but how the transition will be handled is unclear.

He was not a candidate for the general manager's post and was not among the pool of applicants for the job. He was recruited by the board after the top three choices were interviewed, SMART officials said.

Officials also said his compensation is in line with the results of a survey of transit industry executives. The board did not specify a pay range when it started soliciting candidates, however.

"This is not a typical public works project, nor is he a typical hire," said SMART Director Carol Russell, a Cloverdale councilwoman and retired professional recruiter. "I am very comfortable with the package he has. This is a guy who can deliver one of the largest projects this area has seen and do it and not spend a penny more than we have to."

The agency's 2011-12 budget provides for a hefty increase in employee salaries and benefits, from $1.4 million to $2.8 million, as it relies less on consultants and ramps up hiring as it moves closer to construction.

Mansourian has a five-year contract that provides a total annual compensation package of $312,788.

It includes $246,000 a year in pay plus $36,900 in deferred compensation, which can be set aside for retirement. SMART is not contributing to his pension. He also will receive $13,848 annually toward medical benefits, $11,040 for auto and cellphone expenses, up to $5,000 a year for seminars and training and 23 vacation and 12 sick days a year.

Mansourian's predecessor, who was general manager for nine years, received a salary of $176,150 a year, plus $12,320 a year in deferred compensation and a car allowance of $634 a month.

The general manager of the Golden Gate Bridge District, Denis Mulligan, is paid $248,000 a year, plus $23,000 in retirement and deferred compensation and use of a car.

Sonoma State University President Ruben Armi?na is the highest-paid North Bay public official, receiving $331,000 a year in salary.

The actual cost to taxpayers for top executives for a total compensation package can include many facets, such as salaries, deferred compensation, allowances for cars and contributions to retirement funds.

In Sonoma County, County Administrator Veronica Ferguson's total compensation last year was $308,838. That included a salary of $219,873 plus $32,237 of vacation, sick time, holiday hours, car and cash allowance. She also received $10,359 in deferred compensation, medical benefits of $6,606 and $72,065 for her retirement fund.

The total compensation last year for county Public Works Director Phil Demery was $288,044. Components were salary of $204,218; $40,217 in vacation, sick time, holiday hours, car and cash allowances; $9,713 a year in deferred compensation; medical benefits of $7,460 and $66,653 a year into his retirement account.

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg@ pressdemocrat.com.