NEW BEDFORD — The city’s animal control director responding to a cat stuck in a tree would probably not be a story on any other day. But this was not just any day — or any animal control director. This was the morning after the City Council took steps to make New Bedford’s animal control director one of the state’s highest-paid persons in his position.
So the feral gray kitty, about 30 feet up in a tree behind a house in the North End, and the call about the coyote sighting in Rural Cemetery, and the dozen other calls that came in between 8 and 10 this morning — along with accounts of animal control department activity — assume particular weight.
Emanuel Maciel is one of a few city department heads slated for the biggest salary boosts as the council last week gave preliminary approval to a new personnel classification plan for 151 nonunion administrative, clerical and specialized positions held by more than 200 people. Most of the increases are more modest, part of an effort to help New Bedford compete for hires and retain employees in a tight job market.
If the personnel ordinance goes into effect, Maciel’s annual salary would jump from $81,730 to $120,447, according to the Department of Human Resources. That’s largely due to changes in the original classification plan made by the council, including a bump to a higher pay grade plus a pay boost for long-serving employees. At 58 years old, Maciel has been with city animal control since 1997, the department head since 2001.
Nicholas Nanopoulos, director of licensing, would see a similar increase, from $75,057 to $120,447. He’s been in the position since 2002.
The salary hikes would make these department heads the only two who end up more than 50% above the median pay for similar positions in other communities, according to a city administration survey. Information from Boston, however, not included in the survey data, may complicate that point for the animal control position. Three other full-time director positions come out between 32% and nearly 40% above the median.
“Am I worth $100,000?”
“For someone who doesn’t know what we’re doing, yeah, that’s a helluva jump in pay,” said Maciel. He was heading back from the treed-cat mission to the North End — sitting behind the wheel of the department’s modified Ford 250 (they bought the 2014 model used from Methuen).
“Do I feel like I’ve made myself worth that money?” he asked. Throughout the morning and into the early afternoon he returned to variations on that question, answering it by saying “I don’t know,” but telling about what he does, how his department saves the city money, and brings money in.
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For openers, he said, the department is down from five people to three since he joined in 1997 as an officer. At the same time, since he took charge, he said, he’s stepped up enforcement and expanded the department’s range of work, trying to run it more as a “professional,” as he put it.
He said he and his two officers are on duty or on call 365 days a year, responding to about 200 calls a week this time of year, about twice that in the summer. As he has pressed more vigorous enforcement on dog licensing and other regulations, the number of licenses in the city has grown from about 1,000 when he started to more than 6,000 the year ending last June. Add to that fees for non-criminal violations — also grown due to stepped-up enforcement, he said — and the total came to just over $100,000 last year.
“Is it worth another 50-grand? I don’t know.”
Study found New Bedford employees earned less
A study conducted by the city administration as the reclassification proposal took shape showed that salaries for the 151 positions were paying on average about 13% lower than the median for comparable positions in 10 other cities and towns, including Boston, Worcester, Springfield, Taunton, Brockton and Fall River. The administration’s proposal brought salaries up to about even, and City Council amendments raised the average to 3% above the median.
The council changes account for most of the largest salary increases. The administration’s plan was meant to provide at least a 5% raise for all employees in this group, while keeping most salaries within 10% above or below the median in the survey of other cities and towns, said Human Resources Director Judith A. Keating.
The comparison with other communities is a key point, as city officials say they have too often been losing potential employees to other places. Keating said that since January, 52 people have turned down job offers, although not all of them were in the group whose pay would be raised in this reclassification. Since then, she said about 90 employees have left, mostly through resignations. She told the council that other communities have been “poaching” New Bedford employees.
For these reasons, Mayor Jon Mitchell has made clear that he’ll sign the reclassification proposal, even if he doesn’t agree with the council version. He said he does not feel the changes were based on the sort of detailed analysis that informed the original plan.
“To deliver the high-quality services our residents deserve, the city must be able to hire highly qualified staff,” Mitchell said in a prepared statement. “I believe that given the city’s current staffing constraints, we need to move forward with the measure despite its flaws, and attempt to fix them at a later date.”
Last week, the council approved the proposal by voice vote, moving it to the next step. As this is an ordinance change, it has to be advertised in a local publication, then it will be voted upon again by the council. With another affirmative council vote, most likely next month, it will go to the mayor.
The salary changes will be retroactive to October 1, and are expected to cost $725,000 through the end of the fiscal year, June 30. A full year is projected to cost under a million dollars. The current city budget was approved at $467 million.
What about the feral kitty?
The cat about 25-30 feet up the tree is Buddy, but that’s the same name Tiffany Albanese gave to the other two strays she’s been feeding since the spring at her house on Forbes Street. Her dog, Ace, ran this one up the tree out behind her place two days ago and since then he’s been up there at varying heights, on branches of varying strength. No food or water for a couple days.
New Bedford Fire Department Ladder 4 was already there in the driveway as Maciel pulled up.
“He’s on a very tiny branch,” Fire Lt. Kevin Cormier told Maciel. “We almost had him, but then he went farther up the tree.”
Up there it was all shades of gray. The sky light gray with drizzle, the branches nearly black, the cat somewhere between.
Maciel donned a firefighter’s helmet, grabbed a net and a snare pole with an adjustable loop at the end, and stepped into the bucket at the end of the ladder that can stretch 100 feet. Maciel got close, reached with the pole. Buddy retreated to a more slender branch, then lost his footing. There was no sound when the cat tumbled into the air.
He landed in a shallow pond, almost a swamp with trees rising out of it. He missed the rocks, landing feet first (cat). Scampered out of the water into the trees.
Why bother with this? After all, as Lt. Cormier said, you don’t find many cat skeletons in trees.
Mostly two words, said Maciel: social media. Web chattering has stoked the pressure on his crew generally. He’s seen complaints about his department’s failure to respond before they’ve had a call to respond. In this case, maybe someone posts a photo of a kitty up a tree. Next thing you know folks muster volunteer rescue crews, then who knows what. People falling out of trees?
“I don’t know,” he said again. “Am I worth $100,000?”
151 city jobs reclassified
Under the reclassification of the 151 positions, all but 49 fall within the administration’s target range of up to 10% above or below the median for the comparable position as compared with the cities and towns studied. Outside that range are 26 between 10% and 30% above the median, 17 between 10% and 30% below.
Of the six most significant outliers, one, the legislative counsel, is a part-time position. Three full-time positions, the directors of Veterans Services, Community Services and Emergency Management, are between 32% and nearly 40% above the community survey median. The director of animal control and the director of licensing both come out about 52% above — but note a caveat for the relatively small comparison sample of only four communities for licensing, five for animal control.
The salary grade for all of these highest outliers but the director of emergency management were bumped up in changes made by the City Council. Councilor Linda Morad proposed a list of more than 40 changes, including the biggest salary grade jumps.
The jump for the director of emergency management, a position that’s been held by Brian Nobrega for five years, was the administration’s idea. They wanted that job bumped from grade 10 to 16. Nobrega would be at the first step, meaning his annual salary would rise from $75,057 to $96,425, the Human Resources Department said.
Neil Mello, the mayor’s chief of staff, said that agency’s work has grown considerably in recent years, as has the magnitude of the grants the department handles from an array of federal and state agencies, all justifying the change. Council members did not question the move.
In three council committee meetings in October and November, Morad made a few points about her reasoning, and put tough questions to Human Resources Director Keating.
Morad asked if the city had done enough work to understand how the work of New Bedford city departments could be different from other municipalities. When Keating answered that this was sorted out in conversations with officials in those places, Morad said she wanted evidence.
“I want to see what the discussions were with the different cities about specific positions,” she told Keating in a meeting of the Committee on Ordinances on Oct. 24. “It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Morad advocated specifically for the directors of animal control and licensing. She emphasized the scope of the animal control department’s work, including performing euthanasia, which she suggested is not comparable to many other municipal animal control agencies. She emphasized the legal responsibilities of the licensing director, and the amount of money in fees that department collects.
At the committee meeting on Nov. 14, Morad said she thought the salary grades should reflect the flow of an organizational chart: directors at a certain pay range, assistant directors below that, superintendents below that.
She proposed moving the animal control director from the administration’s proposal of salary grade 10 to a 16, the licensing director from 11 to 16. For a person just starting with the city, that would be the difference between a first-year salary of more than $96,000 as opposed to $67,000 or $71,000.
Under the administration’s proposal, Maciel, for instance, would have been bumped to $87,691, rather than the salary over $120,000. At the moment, that could be the highest salary for an animal control director in the state.
A Boston city spokesperson confirmed that the animal control director there makes nearly $108,000. According to the New Bedford administration’s survey, which includes information for only four other cities for this position, not including Boston, the highest top pay grade for this position is $97,148 in Springfield.
At the meetings Morad did not say anything specific about the positions of director of veterans services or director of community services. She proposed moving the veterans services position from grade 12 to 16. She proposed bumping the community services position from 14 to 18.
The Human Resources Department said that would jump Christopher Gomes, the head of veterans services, from $81,730 to $110,827. The administration’s proposal would have bumped him to nearly $87,000. The move would raise Cynthia Wallquist at community services from just over $93,000 to more than $143,000. The administration’s original proposal would have raised her to nearly $98,000.
Wallquist, who has held the community services position since 1999, when it was the Department of Human Services, said she did not realize this sort of increase was in the works.
“I haven’t seen final numbers,” said Wallquist, who leads a department of 11 employees. As the council considered the salary ordinance, her office was busy helping people left without homes after a fire the morning before Thanksgiving at an apartment building in the North End where 23 residents lived.
“I just want all the staff to get the recognition they deserve, and get the compensation they deserve,” she said.
Work takes emotional toll
Animal control officer Shelley Avila-Martins had returned from the Buddy scene on Forbes Street to the department’s new base of operations in a brick building on Brock Avenue. She was leading a rust-colored cocker spaniel on a leash. The dog sat there in the parking lot, looking at new people showing up. Then the dog stepped jauntily into the building.
Avila-Martins had brought the dog from the shelter the department uses in Fall River, as New Bedford does not have one of its own. The dog’s owner reported being bitten more than once. They saw nothing to be done.
As Councilor Morad mentioned, the animal control department is authorized to euthanize animals.
Maciel said they probably perform about 300 of these procedures a year, mostly for animals that are injured or aggressive. Also in cases where they can help owners who are struggling financially and cannot afford the fees a veterinarian would charge, which can run $150 or more. Performing this service is tough on him and his crew emotionally, Maciel said, but it also saves money that would otherwise be paid to a veterinarian.
It’s more work the department has taken on under the leadership of Maciel, who has cultivated a reputation for going to lengths to help animals. Outside of his city work, he’s been on post-disaster missions to Florida, Nevada, Virginia, even the part of Ukraine that people fled after the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, leaving hundreds of animals behind.
“I’m passionate about what I do,” Maciel said, adding a heartfelt point that might not work well in salary negotiations: “I’d do it for $60,000, I’d do it for 120.”
Email Arthur Hirsch at firstname.lastname@example.org.