The New Bedford City Council on Thursday night unanimously adopted a new salary scale for city department heads and other specialized professionals that will lower some of the biggest pay raises — some as high as 40% to 60% — that were approved last month in an earlier version of the salary schedule.
An amendment to the salary classification ordinance — apparently prompted by objections to the high raises that councilors acknowledged hearing from their constituents — caps raises at 25% more than current pay, or as close to that as possible without starting these non-union employees at under the first step of their new salary grade in the reclassification.
Some of those constituents were in attendance Thursday night. Spectators filled the seats in the main chamber, stood by the door and took to the balcony, which had been opened to accommodate the turnout.
Councilor-at-Large Linda Morad, who proposed the amendment, told the council that the revision — which, like the salary ordinance, was adopted in a 10-0 vote — would affect eight positions.
In another second and final vote on an ordinance Thursday night, the council also unanimously approved new zoning that goes with a redevelopment plan for the Hicks-Logan district, a blighted industrial strip along the Acushnet River south of Interstate 195.
According to information provided by the city administration, the eight positions affected by the salary amendment would include the licensing director, who in the earlier version would have received a 60% boost, community services director, who was slated for a 54% raise, and animal control director, or director of leash law, who under the salary schedule adopted last month was due for a 47% pay raise.
Most of the highest increases were among more than 40 changes made by the council in the fall, and were well above the recommendations made in the city administration’s original proposal that was unveiled in October. The salary reclassification proposal, based on an 18-month study of salaries in New Bedford compared with other communities across the state, is meant to help the city compete in a tight job market for municipal professionals.
The administration’s proposal gave all employees in this group raises of at least 5% — most between 5% and 10%. It was meant to keep pay in the city for these positions within 10% of the median pay for comparable jobs in communities selected for comparison. The ordinance hits that median target for 102 of 151 positions included in the reclassification.
Morad spoke for nine minutes in offering her amendment. She reviewed how the process unfolded the last few months, noting that the city has been losing employees who have left for higher salaries in surrounding communities. She emphasized that the council meant to strike a balance of being fair with employees and competitive with other cities and towns
The council, she emphasized, did its work “in open session, all in public. This was not hidden. This was not a surprise to anyone.”
However, once word of the new salary schedule got out, councilors started hearing from their constituents.
“The phone calls started coming in,” Councilor-at-Large Brian Gomes said in remarks to the council. “And we listened.”
He acknowledged that some of the increases were “a little above, too above for the taxpayers of the city.” He said “if you make a mistake” there’s nothing wrong with going back and correcting it.
Ward 6 Councilor Ryan Pereira said he also got emails and phone calls in the last few days about the increases.
Ward 1 Councilor Brad Markey said many of the highest raises were part of an effort to reward longtime employees, but “once we worked it through, there were some that were out there.”
Among those contacting their councilor about the raises were Nina Espada and Catherine Adamowicz, both of Ward 5. They arrived in council chambers early to hand out two-page leaflets protesting the highest pay increases, urging people to contact the mayor to veto the measure if it passed unchanged.
“I just don’t think it’s fair,” Espada said before the meeting began. “People deserve a wage increase, but we want it to be done thoughtfully and responsibly.”
After the vote, Espada said “apparently they got enough calls from the taxpayers that they knew they made a mistake.” She was not entirely thrilled with the outcome, but she said “25% is better than 50%”
Adamowicz said the measure adopted by the council is “better, but not right yet. I think 25% is too high … We got somewhere, a little bit.”
Mayor Jon Mitchell has said the city urgently has to make changes in its salary scale for these jobs to keep pace with the labor market. Last month he said he intends to sign the ordinance, even if it’s not exactly what he had in mind, and consider changes later.
Mitchell’s chief of staff, Neil Mello, said on Thursday before the vote that the mayor’s position has not changed.
“He’s going to sign what is proposed,” Mello said. “We’ll be filing a package of fixes if we have concerns about it.”
In the course of several weeks in the fall, the council made two types of changes that were approved unanimously with little discussion. Morad and Pereira together proposed that pay grades be raised for more than 40 positions. In four cases, the council raised the administration’s proposal for a grade 10 six notches to 16. Two were raised five notches.
In one instance, the director of emergency management, the administration proposed a bump from 10 to 16, and the council agreed.
The difference in salary from one grade to the next in the new classification goes up with higher grades, ranging from 4% to 7%. The step increases, meant to reward employees for longevity, range from 3.5% to 5% from the top to the bottom of the grade scale.
Along with the grade increases, Councilor-at-Large Naomi R. A. Carney added a schedule of salary step requirements tied to employees’ years of service. The combination of both the grade increases and the Carney amendment for longtime employees drove the highest salary increases.
The directors of licensing, community services and animal control, for instance, have been with the city for 19, 23 and 21 years respectively. Along with their increases, there was a nearly 36% raise for the director of veterans services, who has been with the city for 11 years, 31% for the administrator manager in the city clerk’s office, with the city for 14 years, and 26% for assistant zoo director, with the city for 18 years.
Carney said after the meeting that she was trying to give due recognition to longtime employees. She said she just couldn’t see someone who had been with the city for several decades starting out on the first salary step.
Asked how many constituents she heard from about the biggest raises, she looked out the glass door on the first floor at the rain falling on William Street.
“Oh God,” she sighed. Perhaps 15 phone messages, she said, and more emails than that.
The ordinance adopted Thursday night leaves the salary grade scale unchanged but amends the Carney amendment. The one-paragraph addition says that if the Carney schedule calls for the employee’s step level to top a 25% salary boost, they should be placed on the highest step that is just under 25%. But, no employee should be paid less than the first step for their grade, even if it means they get more than a 25% raise.
That means the current director of community services, Cynthia A. Wallquist, with the city for 23 years and bumped from grade 13 to grade 18, would start at step 2, $115,916, just under a 25% boost. Under the ordinance adopted earlier, Wallquist would have landed on step 7, $143,759, an increase of 54%.
Animal Control Director Emanuel Maciel, who was slated for a raise from $81,730 to $120,447, or 47%, instead will go to the step just under a 25% raise for his pay grade, to $101,246.
Maciel was there Thursday night, upstairs outside the balcony, and seemed to be taking it all in stride, despite taking a lot of heat on local radio talk shows after word of his proposed salary hike got out.
“I don’t do this job because I want to be rich,” he said. “I love the city, I love my department, I love what I do.”
The study and the new salary scale have been prompted by the city’s difficulty in recent years filling positions in a tight job market for municipal professionals. Human Resources Director Judith A. Keating said last month that last year, 52 job applicants, some of whom had already completed all the paperwork and even taken physicals to be hired, walked away from job offers.
She said in December that more than 90 employees had left since January 2022, some due to retirements and terminations, but mostly through resignations.
The city is now about 250 employees short of a full workforce of 1,300. The 151 positions included in the study are held by 210 people but would be closer to 250 if city government were fully staffed, City Auditor Emily Arpke said last month.
In October, Keating told the council committee that was considering the proposal that the situation has been “an ongoing battle for us.” She said other communities have “poached” city employees.
The administration’s study — which attempted to compare New Bedford salaries with pay for comparable positions in other communities — suggested a reason: the pay in New Bedford lags behind the median salary for these positions elsewhere by about 13%. The administration’s original proposal brought pay, on average, to about on par with other communities. The council’s first amended version bumped New Bedford up about three points above the comparative median.
The ordinance before it was amended hit the target of 10% above or below comparative median for 102 of the 151 positions included in the new salary schedule. Of the balance — before the amendment adopted Thursday night — 18 were 10-20% above, eight were 20-30% above, four were 30-40 % higher and two were higher by more than 50%.
It was not clear how these numbers, or the overall median comparison would be affected by the amendment adopted Thursday night.
However that exact figure works out, Keating said after the meeting that she’s pleased with the outcome.
“Looking at the end result, we’re now competitive,” she said. “We’re going to be able to attract a lot of talent. That, after all, was the end game.”
Email staff reporter Arthur Hirsch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you to our sponsors
Founding benefactors: Irwin and Joan Jacobs, Mary and Jim Ottaway