NEW BEDFORD — City government managers and other white-collar employees whose salaries have been lagging behind their counterparts elsewhere could see bigger paychecks soon — most from 5% to 10% higher — as the city tries to compete for hires in a heated job market.
A proposal to be considered Tuesday by the City Council moves 151 non-union positions from an average of 13% below to about 3% above employees doing comparable work in other communities that city administration officials studied as they drafted this plan. Even with the raises, some positions would still fall below median pay found elsewhere, but a few outliers would be making as much as 30% to 50% percent more than the median for other communities.
The plan, introduced by the mayor’s office in October and amended by a council committee last week, gives all employees in these positions pay raises of at least 5%, with the highest boosts up to more than 50%.
Poised for some of the biggest increases are the directors of Animal Control, Licensing Board, Community Services and Emergency Management, with salary boosts ranging from nearly 30 to more than 50%.
The changes would take effect retroactively on Oct. 1, and would cost $725,000 for the rest of the fiscal year that ends on June 30, 2023. That’s less than two-tenths of 1% of the city’s $467 million budget. The cost for a full year after that is estimated at just shy of $1 million.
The plan to redraw the job classification chart for department heads and specialized jobs in everything from finance to licensing to zookeeping was recommended for approval by all 10 of 11 council members sitting as a committee of the whole last week. The 11th member was unable to attend that committee session.
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Although the committee recommended changes to the plan drafted by City Hall staff at the direction of Mayor Jon Mitchell — all raising salaries above the original administration proposal — he intends to sign it once it reaches his desk, said his chief of staff, Neil Mello.
“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.
He questioned whether some of the council’s amendments were based on sufficient analysis, saying council members had not done the comparison with other communities that the administration had done over the course of 18 months, and could not explain the basis for their amendments.
However, he said, “we need to move forward with the measure despite its flaws, and attempt to fix them at a later date.”
Ward 6 Councilor Ryan Pereira, who offered a number of changes now included in the proposal, told a committee meeting late last month that the council could not delay this any further. The employees involved, he said, “deserve to know where they stand.”
The positions included in the proposal are now held by 210 people, and would be more like 250 if the city were fully staffed, said City Auditor Emily Arpke. The city is now more than 250 vacancies short of a full workforce of 1,300, Mello said, reflecting the difficulty the city has had in attracting and keeping employees.
This story is a variation on the tale of a tough seller’s job market as U.S. employment has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. New Bedford and other municipal governments are trying to keep pace as the workplace has changed, along with attitudes about work, and as baby-boomers are retiring.
‘’The biggest issue municipalities are facing is it’s just a tight, tight labor market everywhere,” said Bernard F. Lynch, the founder and managing principal of Community Paradigm Associates, a Plymouth-based consultant to municipal governments. “We don’t have enough people applying for positions,” said Lynch, a former Lowell city manager.
He noted the arrival of the “silver tsunami” of retirements that was forecast about 10 years ago, and the trouble local government has attracting young people.
“Perhaps it’s not quite as sexy” as other career options. “People don’t come out of business school thinking ‘I want to work in municipal finance.’’
New Bedford officials have seen the impact in vacant positions, in unsuccessful hiring efforts.
For instance, the city’s chief financial officer left in May 2021, and the position is still open. Veteran town administrator Michael J. Gagne is still working as interim CFO after coming out of retirement in June 2021 to take the spot that, at first, he was expected to hold for only a few months.
Since January, New Bedford has seen city job offers turned down by 52 applicants, a few of whom had already completed all the paperwork and even taken physicals to be hired, said Personnel Director Judith A. Keating. She said some of those applicants had applied for positions that are not among those in the salary reclassification.
It’s been “an ongoing battle for us,” Keating told the council committee considering the proposal in October. She said other communities have “poached” city employees.
“We lost 10 people just in the last pay period,” she said, adding that more than 90 have left since January — some due to retirements and terminations, but mostly through resignations.
Keating and other officials have been at work for more than a year on a plan to do something about this by bringing New Bedford salaries more in line with the pay in other cities and towns. The city hired DIJ Consulting of Tewksbury on a $20,000 contract to compile municipal salary figures from 10 communities: Boston, Providence, Quincy, Fall River, Worcester, Springfield, Brockton, Taunton, Barnstable and Dartmouth.
Keating and other staff members then checked with officials at these other municipalities to make sure that the jobs they were comparing were indeed comparable, as job titles tell only so much. They talked with New Bedford department heads about which positions were most competitive, which seemed more or less likely to be left vacant, where were incentives to take the job and keep it most needed.
Keating said the study considered the education and experience needed to do each job, the responsibility and hazard exposure.
The result of all this was a conclusion that New Bedford, which last completed a reclassification like this in 2017, had fallen behind other communities in almost every position in almost every pay level. Of the 151 positions, just a handful emerged at par, or just ticks above median salaries for comparable work elsewhere. About a third were 15% to 30% under the median, most of the rest up to 14% under.
The average overall was nearly 13% below the median salary for comparable work in the other communities. The new classification schedule proposed by the administration would bring that about to parity, two-tenths of a percent under. The council’s amendments take the overall effect to 3% above the median.
Keating said the plan was drafted with two goals in mind: to give all the positions a salary boost of at least 5%, and to place each position within 10% plus or minus of the median for that position in the communities studied for the proposal.
To do this, the proposal being considered by the council to change the city personnel ordinance would make a couple of moves. The pay grade schedule itself would change, raising starting pay scales from 1% to 3%. Also, some positions would move to higher classifications.
The proposal also extends the 8-step pay schedule for each grade to 12, each representing an annual pay increase, in hopes of providing incentive for employees to stay with the city. The plan also adds one pay grade to the highest end of the salary schedule.
Of the 151 positions, the proposal moves 109 to a different pay classification. That’s where the differences between the administration’s proposal and the plan as modified by the council committee emerge.
For example, typical of the 53 changes the council made were proposed pay grades for administrative managers, and the city clerk.
In the administration’s proposal, administrative managers would move from grade 7 to 8, with their starting salary rising from $56,476 under the current scale to $61,080 on the new schedule, an 8% raise. The council would move that position to grade 9 starting at $64,133, a 13% raise from the current schedule.
The administration proposed moving the city clerk from grade 17 to 18, with a starting salary rising from $100,169 to $110,396, a 10% raise. The council bumped up another grade to 19, starting at $118,124, an 18% raise.
A few of the changes fall outside those bounds.
For example, the Director of Animal Control under the administration’s proposal would have moved from a salary of $81,750 to nearly $88,000, Keating said. Under an amendment proposed by At-large Councilor Linda Morad and approved by the committee, that salary would jump to just over $120,000, an increase of nearly 50%.
Also under amendments offered by Morad and approved in committee, the Director of Licensing would jump from just over $75,000 to just over $120,000, a 60% salary hike. The administration proposed an increase of just over 9% to $82,000. The salary for the Director of Community Services would rise from just over $93,000 to nearly $144,000, more than a 50% boost. The administration recommended a much more modest increase of nearly 5%.
Morad declined to respond to requests for comment.
In committee meetings, including intense questioning of Keating in October, Morad expressed doubt about the administration’s approach to the study, particularly how comparisons were made with other communities and whether due consideration was given to the scope and significance of the work being done by the heads of Animal Control and the Licensing Board.
“Think about that position,” Morad said to Keating, referring to the licensing director. “Think of the responsibility of that position. The responsibility during the pandemic…Think of the revenue that comes in.”
These changes would put the Licensing Board director nearly 52% above the median for comparable work in other communities, and the Animal Control director 52% above. The head of Community Services would be 32% above that benchmark.
For its part, the administration proposed that the Director of Emergency management jump six pay grades, meaning a salary boost from $75,000 to just over $96,000, a 29% increase. That would put this position about a third higher than comparable positions in the other communities.
Keating said the administration considered how the scope of that position has expanded in the last few years, including the greater responsibility for managing money coming from a number of federal and state sources, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Rescue Plan Act. The council committee let that change stand.
City Clerk Dennis W. Farias said that if the council approves the proposed personnel ordinance Tuesday, the change would have to be advertised in a local publication. Then the measure would be voted again by the council, meaning it most likely would not reach the mayor’s desk until next month.
Email staff reporter Arthur Hirsch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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