Raises for eight top civil servants proposed
Critics say plan rides on Nagin's coattails

By Gordon Russell
Staff writer/The Times-Picayune

As New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin pursues his controversial plan to boost the salaries of nearly three dozen high-level appointees -- substantially, in many cases -- the city's Civil Service Commission is quietly pushing equally hefty raises for select civil servants.

The commission recently approved a plan that would raise the base pay for eight high-level civil service positions by amounts ranging from 53 percent to 77 percent. If the City Council approves the new salaries, the additional cost to the city will be about $440,000 per year.

Critics, including some Nagin insiders, see the commission's plan as a glaring attempt by top bureaucrats to grab a piece of the action while the cash drawer at City Hall appears to be open. They question where the money for the increases will come from.

The proposal clearly was inspired in part by raises Nagin has been doling out. Explanatory material given to the commission before its vote said the new salaries would "maintain uniformity in the relationships between those classifications and comparable positions" held by political appointees.

But Civil Service Commission personnel director Mike Doyle -- who drafted the new pay scale and whose pay would jump by 51 percent if it is adopted, from $77,061 to $116,084 -- said the proposal is not motivated by opportunism.

Rather, the plan is a long overdue measure that would bring the salaries of long-term city employees in line with their counterparts in other cities, Doyle said. The employees who would receive raises have among them at least 250 years of service to the city, Doyle said, and most have advanced degrees or other specialized knowledge. Many have been tempted by better-paying jobs elsewhere, he said.

For example, Doyle produced a letter from New Orleans Museum of Art Director John Bullard asking that the museum's assistant director, Jacqueline Sullivan, be given a substantial raise. Bullard notes that Sullivan, who is 50, "may retire," adding that "she feels she would be able to work for another 10 or 15 years in private industry at a considerably higher salary."

Inflation outstrips city pay

The plan has been in the works for years, Doyle said. In fact, the recommended raises are the final ones proposed by the commission after a survey of all city pay levels. The commission turned its attention to high-level jobs last because raising lower salaries was seen as more urgent , Doyle said.

"This is just something to keep the city competitive," said Doyle, who said he hasn't received a raise since 1988. He has worked for the city for 30 years. "If the city had raised salaries 2 percent a year for the last 20 years, we wouldn't be looking at this. Most salaries have not kept pace with inflation."
Asked whether there is a conflict inherent in proposing a raise for himself, Doyle shrugged. "It's the job, it ain't me," he said. "And there's no way for me to get around this. Either we do this, or the job never gets adjusted."

The proposed salary increases will likely add spice to an already lively debate over the city's pay scale. For while everyone agrees that salaries at City Hall are anemic, there's plenty of disagreement over how to bring them up to par.

Nagin's vision, articulated in his campaign and during his first 60 days in office, has been to raise the pay of top appointees first, financing the increases by shrinking the overall size of the City Hall work force. The "all-star team" he creates will eventually improve the city's financial position, Nagin has said, making across-the-board raises possible.

Nagin spokesman Patrick Evans had little comment on the Civil Service Commission's proposal other than to emphasize that it didn't come from the mayor. "We would see a problem with this if there is no fiscal responsibility attached to it," Evans said. "But we haven't seen any details yet."

Raises for all, union says

Wade Rathke, chief organizer for Service Employees International Union Local 100, which represents hundreds of rank-and-file city workers, has a different vision of raising city pay. In Rathke's view, the city should give across-the-board raises, with particular attention to those scraping by on poverty-level wages.

Following up a series of salary increases to top officials with raises for those who work immediately beneath them would be "the height of absurdity," he said.

"The rationalization, I guess, is that if you give Person A a raise to $115,000, then that person's assistant should be snuggled up next to them at $105,000," Rathke said. "We don't understand how they can separate these half-dozen from the rest of the work force."

Citing the city's pest control operations as an example, Rathke said the proposed changes would be "nonsensical." He noted that the department's director and assistant director would receive about $75,000 in raises even as rank-and-file employees have been scaled back to a 35-hour work week. And he wondered whether the raises would have to be financed by further cutbacks.

"We've got a termite problem in this city of national proportions," Rathke said. "This small department is already out there with its finger in the dike. Are they saying they can somehow afford to absorb layoffs so that two people can get raises?"

Budget panel chief skeptical

The City Council has the final say on the proposed raises.

Councilman Marlin Gusman, who heads the council's Budget Committee, has bestowed his blessing on many of Nagin's salary-increase requests. But he has criticized others, particularly a now-dead proposal that would have given former Councilman and political opponent Jim Singleton a position with a six-figure salary. Gusman said the administration failed to provide sufficient justification for the job, and on Wednesday, Singleton withdrew from consideration.

And though the raises proposed by the Civil Service Commission would benefit several employees Gusman hired when he was chief administrative officer, he sounded less than enthused about the commission's plan.

"I think we have to be careful in trying to fix a problem that's been here so long too quickly," Gusman said. "What we need is a more reasoned approach. I think the vast majority of individuals in City Hall are grossly underpaid, but I don't think it's fiscally responsible to try to fix this problem all at once."

Given Gusman's lukewarm response -- and the council's disregard for earlier recommendations by the Civil Service Commission -- Doyle doesn't hold out much hope that the new salaries will be adopted.

"I'm expecting nothing," he said. "I never send stuff down to the City Council expecting anything. But we have a role to play in this process, and we're going to play it."

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Gordon Russell can be reached at grussell@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3347.
© The Times-Picayune. Used with permission.