Update: Pittsfield pay raise talk tabled after long debate
PITTSFIELD -- A proposed new pay schedule for city government supervisors drew intense scrutiny Monday before it was tabled after two and a half hours of discussion.
The City Council's Ordinance and Rules Committee began considering Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi's proposal to raise the salary levels for about two dozen employees and give a 5 percent raise to an equal number of other nonunion workers. Bianchi said the ordinance required to implement the changes for department heads and others follows a consultant's study that compared rates of pay with those in similar communities in the state.
According to city Director of Finance Susan Carmel, the resulting pay raises would cost roughly $300,000. The mayor proposed the increase be retroactive to July 1, 2013, and as funding for the salary hikes is in the contingency account in the current budget to cover the cost, but councilors seemed to balk at that provision.
Committee members also voted to deal with the mayor's position separately, in part because a raise for the chief executive would require at least eight votes (two-thirds) of the full council, while the other raises would require support of only six of the 11 councilors.
Any raise for the mayor also would not take effect until after the next city election.
After its review, the subcommittee will forward a recommendation to the full council for final action.
All of the committee members, Chairman Christopher Connell, Kathleen Amuso, Kevin Morandi, Jonathan Lothrop and Melissa Mazzeo, expressed a need for more information and more time to digest the complex new salary structure that would replace an existing one in the city code.
They said the consultant's report on comparative salary structures elsewhere in the state -- adjusted for geography and other factors -- was not made available early enough for them to vote on the issue Monday. "I'm not prepared to vote on this tonight," Amuso said at one point, echoing other councilors.
Bianchi and Rachel Brown of Stone Consulting, who prepared the compensation comparison involving Pittsfield and more than 20 other municipalities, said the salary rates for supervisors here are about 12 percent below the average. That includes normalizing adjustments made for the city's location in Berkshire County and other factors, they said.
The city has found it difficult to attract and retain qualified employees, the mayor said. He later added that supervisors had received only a 1.5 percent cost of living raise since 2009, while unionized employees had received pay hikes.
Councilors raised a number of points, saying they would need more information or answers before voting on the proposal. Connell also said committee members received many calls from residents after a preview of the meeting appeared in The Eagle.
Concerning the retroactive aspect of the raises, "there were a lot of calls," Connell said.
He and other councilors indicated they might oppose that aspect of the plan or seek to alter it.
Bianchi responded that the time frame is "open to discussion," but that money for the pay raises is already included in the budget for this fiscal year, ending June 30.
Councilors raised questions about the methods used to compare municipal salaries and related data, citing the lower cost of housing and other unique factors in Berkshire County.
They also questioned how a salary range, based on managerial performance and annual reviews would be implemented. Currently, pay raises are based on longevity, but Brown recommended a more flexible format that would allow the city to pay top performers more to retain them and also attract more experienced new managers.
Bianchi said the format for evaluating the supervisors has not yet been finalized but could put restrictions on the amount of any performance raises during multi-year stages of employment.
During the public comment segment of the meeting, Terry Kinnas and Valerie Andersen raised concerns about the need for pay raises for Pittsfield officials, and a letter from David and Glenda Wiechecki, who said they could not attend, raised similar objections.
The letter focused in part on lower housing costs in the Berkshires compared to other areas of the state as a mitigating factor for lower pay rates. Connell also later cited real estate statistics that showed the city's housing costs are lower than all of the other communities in the compensation survey except for North Adams.
Brown said her survey focused on the comparative cost of labor for supervisory positions, not the cost of living, adding that a focus on the lower housing costs might "send the wrong message" to current or prospective managerial employees.
She said another important factor is that a fair level of compensation be established for supervisors in comparison to department employees, some of whom have received raises in recent years.
Councilor at Large Barry Clairmont, who is not on the subcommittee, spoke during the public comment period, saying he believes raises appear justified. "This was a very professional [consultant's] report, very well done," he said.
Clairmont, who acknowledged he has a reputation as a "budget hawk," said he "wouldn't be here tonight if I didn't think this was fair."
The councilor also supported the idea of pay raises for supervisors being based more on performance than on longevity.
Mazzeo and other councilors said they believe raises are justified for some or all of the top city positions, but she wants "to see a firm plan" concerning all the new rates and how the proposed merit raise format would work and be implemented.
Lothrop said he generally supports raises but wants to see more backup information about the changes. He added that if the mayor and clerk positions are to be considered for higher pay levels, then other elected officials should be included as well.
Councilors last received a pay raise in 1995, he said, and School Committee members still are unpaid, although the new city charter allows them to be compensated for the first time.
About two dozen other nonunion employees would be given flat 5 percent raises under the mayor's proposal. These are not listed on the supervisory and professional city position salary schedule.
Councilors said they would want to see a specific list of positions and also details on how performance raises would be given before voting. The committee meets next on June 2.
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