Editorial: Bad approach to raises

When Mayor Nagin proposed substantial raises for nearly three dozen high-level positions in city government, it was only a matter of time before other city workers began pushing for higher salaries as well.

Current pay levels up and down the totem pole at City Hall aren't enough, generally speaking, to attract and retain good workers. Many longtime employees say their pay hasn't kept up with inflation.

Even so, a salary plan advanced by the city's Civil Service Commission is the wrong way to deal with the problem.

The commission, which oversees conditions of employment within the city's civil service system, recently approved a plan to raise the base pay for eight top civil-service positions by 53 to 77 percent. The positions in question include the deputy director of the New Orleans Museum of Art, the director and assistant director of mosquito, termite and rodent control and the personnel director. In practice, the plan would cost the city about $440,000 per year.

The City Council, whose Budget Committee recently approved nearly all of the raises that Mayor Nagin proposed, should reject the Civil Service Commission's plan.

The question of how much to pay the new mayor's top appointees couldn't be put off. The city's highest administrative positions have to be filled, and being able to attract high-quality candidates to those positions is crucial to making all of city government run better. Moreover, the mayor's team has argued persuasively that savings from better management and a smaller workforce will be enough to pay for the raises he proposed.

Meanwhile, critics of the Civil Service Commission plan view it as an attempt by bureaucrats to get more money while the City Council is in a generous mood.

Mike Doyle, the commission's personnel director, maintains that the proposal isn't motivated by opportunism. He notes that the eight workers involved have worked for the city for a total of 250 years, and he says many of them have considered seeking better-paying jobs elsewhere.

In truth, once Mayor Nagin and the City Council examine the pay structure at City Hall in detail, they may conclude that some of those eight positions are underpaid. But that determination should be part of an overall assessment of pay and staffing at City Hall.

Wade Rathke, the organizer of a union whose members include hundreds of rank-and-file workers, notes that employees in the mosquito control department have been scaled back to 35 hours per week. With good reason, he asks whether $75,000 in raises for the director and assistant director of the department would be the best use of money right now.

What the city needs is a detailed examination of the size of the city workforce and the total compensation -- including salaries, benefits and retirement plans -- that city workers receive.

During his campaign, Mr. Nagin suggested that a leaner but better-paid city workforce could perform better than the current one. He and the council should work together to come up with a pay structure that will help the city government attract the best workers and motivate them to be as productive as possible.

© The Times-Picayune. Used with permission.