MOUNT VERNON — Mount Vernon City Council members gave first readings to legislation that creates two new engineering positions, raises the salaries of the director and assistant director of public utilities, and establishes pay grades for non-bargaining unit employees.

They also passed as an emergency an ordinance setting the second assistant law director’s salary at $59,000.

In doing so, council set up a chain reaction relating to compensation for all of the city’s non-bargaining unit employees.

The legislation did not come without debate. Council held two meetings of the Employee and Community Relations Committee on Sept. 20 and Oct. 4. Each lasted 75 minutes. They held a third committee meeting on Monday.

The discussions and legislation stem from compensation and organizational assessments that Clemons-Nelson and Associates conducted at council’s request. Recommendations include establishing pay grades, filling existing vacancies, and creating two new engineering positions.

Clemens-Nelson also recommended bringing personnel up to the midpoint of the salary range for each pay grade. To do so will cost $260,000 plus nearly $46,000 in benefits.

Auditor Terry Scott initially said the city could phase in the pay increases over a three-year period. At the Oct. 4 meeting, he said it will take more than three years to get to the spread administration is talking about.

“Our strength is not on our side right now on our income tax collections,” he said. “We are still just marginal, we are not growing.”

Scott said business profits are strong, but withholdings are about $200,000 short compared to a typical year.

“When we don’t see the workforce working, or not working as much, that’s a concern to me,” he said. “That’s a local economic concern we should be aware of. That’s why it will take longer than three years.”

Where to start?

Council President Bruce Hawkins said he knows the city is short of personnel in certain areas, especially engineering, but he is also concerned about cost.

“When you look at the positions the consultant said need filled, where are we in filling positions vs salary compensation? Which comes first?” he asked on Oct. 4.

“We have to address them in concert,” replied Safety-service Director Richard Dzik.

The assistant director of public utilities position highlights the dilemma.

Dzik said he interviewed three qualified candidates but could not fill the position for less than $70,000. The current rate is $60,000. According to Clemens-Nelson, the position should pay a minimum of $58,968; mid-point would be $73,715.

If council increases the assistant director’s pay to $70,000, it bumps into the director of public utilities current pay of $70,000.

“There’s a certain amount of understanding where our compensation is going to be with the positions we are going to create,” Dzik said. “It continues to create friction if we correct compensation for the positions we hire in but don’t correct it for the people who are currently employed here.

“I’m fine if we go step by step, but I don’t want to fall too far behind the other.”

“When I look at adding new positions and salaries, I am very concerned about salary compression for the people who are currently here who then may become dissatisfied and leave,” said Council member Julia Warga. “So we need to think about that and … need to recognize loyalty to the city.”

The proposed wage scale and pay grades are for non-bargaining unit employees. Councilman Mike Hillier questioned what members of the bargaining units will say if the city grants pay increases to the non-bargaining employees.

Historically, non-bargaining unit employees’ compensation is the same as and based on the contracts negotiated with the bargaining units.

The second assistant law director position illustrates another problem. The city recently hired an individual at a salary of $50,000. After a few months, he left to take a position that offered more money.

According to Clemens-Nelson’s pay scale, which takes into account comparable cities salaries, the position should pay a minimum of $58,968; mid-point would be $73,715.

At the Sept. 20 committee meeting, Council member Tammy Woods said it is risky to compare communities, noting that although population might be similar, each community has very different characteristics.

Tammy Woods 1 col

“I think we are still operating under covid’s effect, and I think it’s a bad time to think [compensation] is why we’re not getting people to fill positions,” she said.

She reiterated that position on Oct. 4.

“I think this is a great survey,” she said of the Clemens-Nelson assessment. “We asked for it to see if we were understaffed. It’s done a great job of answering that. But I have a real problem when it comes to comparables. Taking a jurisdiction and comparing it to another is a slippery slope. … It’s hard to compare apples-to-apples.”

Compounding the problem of balancing priorities is potential EPA fines if the utilities department does not have enough personnel. The recently instituted stormwater utility charge is based on achieving and maintaining EPA compliance and developing a capital improvement program for the stormwater system. Attaining the level of service needed to do that involves three full-time staff members for the stormwater utility.

Who decides?

Safety-service Director Dzik had previously asked council to let administration decide the wages, saying it would give him flexibility during the interview process to meet a candidate’s needs. He also noted that wage flexibility allows pay to include merit increases.

“If salaries are set wrong, and we give everyone the same 2% or 3%, we’re never going to fix that wrong,” he said on Sept. 20.

Council members said that oversight needs to stay with council.

Noting that he sees the value in merit raises, Council President Hawkins said, “Why can’t administration use the info [from Clemens-Nelson] and still make recommendations to council? I can’t think of a time when we have not approved negotiated numbers.”

Councilwoman Janis Seavolt agreed.

“I don’t want to give up the control. That’s what we do. To give that up without knowing what our future will be, that bothers me. … We’re here two years, but what we do affects the future,” she said at the Sept. 20 meeting.

She explained her position further on Oct. 4.

“Constituents have told me your role being on council is is financial. They are all saying you better be watching the money,” she said. “It’s a sticky situation. I know it’s hard for Rick, but if he comes to us we’ll work with him and try to get him what he needs. But we do have to watch the money.

“Too many cities are paying good money, yes, but they are in financial trouble. We don’t want to be in financial trouble.”

Oct. 11 council meeting

Last night, council members specifically discussed Ordinance 2021-42, which sets the second assistant law director’s salary at a range of $59,000 to $65,000. They reiterated their unease at authorizing a salary range vs a set rate, noting it would set a precedent and create a snowball effect for other positions if the candidate hired in at $65,000.

Council amended the ordinance and set the salary at $59,000. Law Director Rob Broeren agreed to the amendment. If during the interview process Broeren finds that candidates are asking for more, he will come back to council.

As currently written, Ordinance 2021-41 creates the positions of assistant city engineer ($70,000-$80,000) and engineering project manager ($48,000-$55,000).

Ordinance 2021-43 sets the salary for the public utilities director at $70,000-$80,000 and the assistant director at $60,000 to $70,000.

Ordinance 2021-40 sets salaries and a compensation model based on 10 pay grades for the remaining non-bargaining unit employees.

Ordinances 40, 41, and 43 received a first reading on Monday.

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