It’s not that Manny Maciel is not a nice guy. He is.
As New Bedford Light reporter Arthur Hirsch noted in his fine story about riding along with the animal control officer, if your cat is up a tree or you’re worried about that coyote you saw in Rural Cemetery, Manny’s the guy who’ll come and hold your hand. He’ll bring the fire department with him too, if they’re not busy.
But even the hard-working Manny has sounded defensive about the $38,000 salary boost that the City Council has just decided to give him in one fell swoop.
Maciel went to bed one night making $82,000 a year and woke up the next morning making $120,000.
Nick Nanopoulos, the head of the two-employee city Licensing Department, is another guy who the council decided to give a big Christmas gift to all at once.
Nanopoulos got an even bigger raise than Manny, some $45,000 above where he was before. He went from earning $75,000 on Dec. 5 to $120,000 on Dec. 6. Of course these raises are technically retroactive to Oct. 1 so maybe they got the raises even earlier.
Nanopoulos is set to retire early in the new year, but Human Resources Director Judith Keating warned the City Council that giving these two raises could still raise serious stability issues for the future. There is no doubt that other city employees — spell that the AFSCME rank-and-file union — have noticed the big increases meted out to several department heads who are in a position to do favors for city councilors. “That certainly does throw off a lot of equity,” Keating said about the two biggest jumps.
Just how out of whack are those salaries approved by the council? “They are 52% and 51% above anywhere else in the state,” said Keating.
It didn’t matter. The council ignored the human resources expert, and in the end, voted 10-0 in favor of the raises.
It’s not news that this council tends to favor city employees over city property taxpayers, but even for these councilors, the vote was breathtaking.
Some of the councilors even made a spurious claim that the salary increases won’t raise taxes because there is enough money in “free cash” — a weird name for what amounts to one of the city’s surplus funds — to pay the bill.
Well, that takes care of the $725,000 payment due for these employee raises for the first year. But what about all the future years, not to mention the decades when some employees who got big raises could be collecting pensions from the city based on their three highest years of earning? With these huge individual pay raises in one year, that debt has taken an unnecessarily big jump forevermore.
Maciel and Nanopoulos were not alone.
The council on Dec. 6 also gave a number of other favored employees big salary increases. Among them were David Gerwatowski, the council’s own lawyer; Chris Gomes, the director of veterans services; and Cynthia Walquist, the director of human services. They all received increases in the 32-40% range.
Walquist’s salary increase was particularly impressive. She went from earning $93,000 to $143,000 in one day, a $50,000 salary increase for someone who had been working for the city for almost two decades. Amazing that the council just woke up one day and discovered she was so much more valuable than the city had ever previously known. Not that Walquist does not do a good job. She does from all available evidence.
Longtime Councilor Linda Morad led the charge on these raises. She accomplished it by raising the pay grades for the positions she wanted to bump up by five and six grades at a time when most of the employees only saw their levels increase by one or two grades under the administration plan submitted by Human Resources.
Morad hemmed and hawed that it was not about individual people but about the principle that all people who have the word “director” or “assistant director” in their titles should be paid around the same amount.
That’s an absurdity, of course.
The directors of the city’s informational technology or inspectional services have far more complex responsibilities than the directors of leash law or veterans services.
Certainly, everyone loves the folks who help animals or veterans, and they should be paid well. But describing big, complex departments as similar to small, routine ones like licensing is not remotely fair. And the truth is that some employees have good prospects in the private sector while others do not.
Don’t get me wrong, there was some sense to giving employees more money during this time of hyper-inflation. But the problem with Morad’s scheme was that it gave some employees much more than others.
The City Council was not the only one in the mood for Christmas largesse to favored employees. Mayor Jon Mitchell is generally far more fiscally responsible than most on the City Council. But even he saw fit to give a big salary increase to a favored worker, Brian Nobrega, the head of the emergency management department.
Mitchell argued that Nobrega, a five-year employee, has taken on far greater responsibilities in recent years because he has had to lead, 24/7, the city’s response to the pandemic and climate change crises. Certainly an emergency management director could earn a lot more elsewhere than Nobrega’s current $75,000 salary. But the mayor’s arguments opened up a proverbial can of worms because the councilors then made similar arguments on behalf of their own favorites like Maciel and Veterans Director Chris Gomes. So there you go, everybody got into the act in this New Bedford salary arms race.
It would have been better if the city had created a whole new position for Nobrega’s emergency management responsibilities, preventing the council from taking up the mayor’s subjective argument about who does a lot and who does a little.
Nobrega’s raise, for the record, was a little more modest by the standards of the City Council – going to roughly $96,000. The reason Nobrega got the somewhat smaller bump is because Councilor Naomi Carney proposed an amendment to the periodic salary increases that the Mitchell administration had proposed.
Carney’s amendment — astonishingly also passed 10-0 by the council — allowed city employees to retain some of their periodic “step” increases, even as the reclassification had already granted all of them at least 5% raises.
Carney argued that she wanted to give the long-term employees a reward before they retire. “You’re leaving your career, there’s no reason why you can’t go out with a bang,” she said.
Massachusetts government employee pensions are based on the highest three years of salaries so Carney was giving a very big increase.
It’s certainly admirable for the councilors to feel this way about devoted, long-term city employees, but not to the tune of 40% and 50% raises.
How did all this get started?
Well, it’s because management employees are not in a union in New Bedford, so every so often the city has to bump up their pay and benefits to keep competitive with other communities that are bidding for their skills. It’s a process called reclassification.
Under the reclassification system, the salary schedule for management employees like the ones in question is periodically increased because inflation has eaten into the previous salary schedule.
Mayor Mitchell, for his part, has been desperately pushing for this reclassification because ever since the pandemic, the city has lost scores of employees to retirement or to those jumping to other jobs. This is particularly a problem when it comes to employees who are highly marketable in the private sector like the chief financial officer, treasurer and head of public infrastructure.
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It’s hard to argue, however, that the director of leash law (that’s the actual title) and the guy who runs the licensing board meetings are in similar demand as the CFO and auditor.
The CFO position, as we have seen in the news, has been vacant for more than a year with no one wanting to even apply for it.
The mayor told me he is aware of the problems with the employees who got big grade jumps and the amendment that protects long-term employees in the step increases. He also said the city’s residency requirement — which mandates that new employee salaries be reduced by 10% if they don’t live in the city — is also a problem for attracting executive talent. The council passed that misguided ordinance a few years ago.
But Mitchell said most of the increases are necessary and he intends to sign the council-passed reclassification, even with its flaws. The city has had 52 individuals turn down job offers since January.
“When the dust settles, we’re going to take a look at this and see what needs to be done,” he said.
What all the council’s shenanigans did was to raise the cost of these salaries by about a million dollars a year. That may not seem like a lot in a $472 million annual budget, but if you consider that New Bedford far and away has much higher property tax bills than its surrounding suburbs, then you begin to get the picture. For the record, the same house in New Bedford will cost you hundreds of dollars more in property taxes than if it were in Fairhaven, even more in Dartmouth.
The same councilors who gave out these raises, of course, are the same councilors who have steadfastly refused to consider making adjustments to the city’s health care plan in a way that would better control costs. The same councilors who didn’t want to spend a modest amount to build a maintenance building to repair city heavy equipment.
It’s easy to blame councilors like Carney and Morad. Councilor Morad, far and away the most competent person on the council, nevertheless continues to be confused as to whether her job is to set policy or be a shadow mayor. She proposed an amazing 40 alternatives to the professional salary recommendations made by the human resources director, engaging in a tedious process by which she questioned Keating on every single job classification in the city.
But whatever Carney and Morad did, they did it in broad daylight before the city’s cable TV cameras. To their credit, they stated their positions and defended them.
Far worse, it seems to me, were the councilors who sat there through multiple meetings on the salary and proposals and said little, but then voted for the big increases to the favored employees.
That would include Council President Ian Abreu, recently resigned Councilor Hugh Dunn, and councilors Brian Gomes, Maria Giesta, Derek Baptiste, Scott Lima and Shane Burgo.
Councilor Brad Markey sponsored what seemed to be a token motion to help the mayor negotiate with high-level applicants, but he voted with the majority on the big raises when it came right down to it, almost as if the council had let Morad and Carney do the heavy lifting so they could get the benefit without a quotable sound bite.
All of this was accomplished, by the way, with the councilors voting without ever mentioning the names of the employees in question or how much their raises would be. They insisted it was all about the positions, not the people.
Morad on Nov. 16 sent out one of her internal communications directly to her fellow councilors with her suggested changes. Then the council voted on it with most of them never saying a word about the dollar amounts or big grade increases.
And then there was freshman Ward 6 Councilor Ryan Pereiria.
One of the most remarkable evolutions in this process was accomplished by Councilor Pereira. Unlike the others, he is not afraid to take a tough stance in public.
Pereira has been a remarkably well-spoken, thoughtful first-term councilor. But over the last two months he has moved from speaking about the necessity of the market determining an employee’s value to making his own recommendations on which city positions were not getting paid enough.
In making the motion that resulted in the big salary jumps, Pereira, who has hitherto seemed like a fiscal conservative, cast the whole issue as one of the city finally paying a living wage to its hard-working employees.
“I think we have a special, unique opportunity tonight to show the city what the council thinks about how to treat our employees,” he said.
Maybe so. Pay equity is certainly an important issue of the moment, nationally and locally. But boosting all employees to about 10 percent greater than what median government employees are making is one thing. Giving out tens of thousands of dollars in one fell swoop to a limited number of individual employees is another. It all looked like Pereira and the other councilors had decided to go along with Morad ahead of time. Even on a local level, lawmaking is about compromise and the council needed a three-quarter vote to change salaries.
Don’t think AFSCME, whose contract negotiations with the city are currently stalled, didn’t notice. The union, which represents laborers and clerical workers, and its president Bruce Bettencourt wrote two letters to the council during their deliberations demanding the same treatment as the managers were getting. Morad has even suggested holding off on the final vote to pass the salary boosts until the AFSCME contract is settled. This could get even more expensive for the city.
These wage increases still have to be voted on at a second reading in early January. It will be interesting to see if the council can hang on, now that these huge giveaways to certain employees are better known.
Email Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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