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Editorial: Mayor makes good case for raises, but details ‘rankle’

The Santa Fe city manager recently granted big temporary raises – of 10 or 15 percent – to 37 city employees just before new Mayor Alan Webber took office, at a cost of $400,000.

There has been outrage that the general public, Webber, former Mayor Javier Gonzales, the city employees union and the City Council didn’t know about the raises until a report came out in the Santa Fe New Mexican. To use Webber’s phrase in a unique and detailed “mayor’s report” he issued Wednesday, “Rarely has one decision made so many people angry for so many different reasons.”

Among the reasons:

• It looked like the raises may have been implemented in the dark during the early March mayoral transition and before Webber, with new strong mayor powers granted under a voter-approved city charter change, took over as the city’s “chief administrative officer.” Three new city councilors also were coming on board.

Why not just tell the world – or at a minimum, the City Council and the mayor – about the raises? The city manager has control over personnel matters (or at least he did before the strong-mayor changes clouded that issue somewhat), but the raises came from a software project budget, not from money designated for employee pay.

• It looked like city government had $400,000 in spare change lying around waiting to be scraped up to spend on pay raises for a select group of city employees.

• It looked like the city administration may have been playing favorites. Why did some employees get raises and others didn’t? Why did some get bigger raises than others?

Webber’s seven-page report provides some answers. The new mayor, while lamenting a lack of communication that “allowed the public to fill the void with standard preconceptions,” supports the raises, even describing them as a “best practice” for rewarding public sector employees who can’t get pay bonuses like companies can hand out.

The 37 rewarded workers are working on major upgrades in computerization, software and other technology. A financial review from last year that ripped into City Hall’s financial accountability and oversight lamented technology being out of date and some processes still depending on paper records. The upgrade is a $4.2 million project that Webber portrays as a crucial change in operations and the workplace culture of city government.

The workers getting raises took on more work and leadership roles for the project, which was dubbed internally as Project ¡Andale! The temporary raises were deemed a better option than hiring more contractors or hiring new employees to take on day-to-day work while key staff worked on the project, Webber said in his report.

He says employees were asked to “put their personal lives on hold.” The raises were “appropriate – and quite frankly, necessary – to reward City workers who are change agents in an organization that has historically been change-averse,” Webber said.

So where did the money come from? It was part of a $525,000 contingency fund that was in the project budget, representing 12 percent of the total funding, according to a document provided by City Hall.

This is one issue that needs more examination or explanation, totally separate from the benefits of the information technology modernization and the merits of rewarding city employees for good work.

Can money from a capital improvement project like the software upgrade routinely be converted to enhancing employee salaries, or to city salaries at all? Could city employees who oversee contractors’ construction of a City Hall addition or a new parking garage be rewarded with pay raises from a contingency fund as well? “I will be on the lookout in the future to turn over every stone,” said a skeptical Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler at a Wednesday council meeting.

And didn’t Santa Fe just get into trouble for using money from a $30 million parks improvements bond issue for employee salaries?

Another unresolved issue: Even with Webber’s detailed report, there really has been no decent explanation for why the city manager or deputy city manager never told the City Council or mayor about the raises. On Wednesday, Vigil Coppler and Councilor Mike Harris asked in particular why the pay hikes weren’t mentioned during a presentation about the software project just two weeks ago.

The excuse offered so far is that city administrators didn’t feel they were required to mention the raises because the council had already approved the project’s overall budget. That’s a pretty technical and lawyerly answer for not disclosing a $400,000 expenditure. “In retrospect, some form of briefing could have been done as part of a larger communication plan for the project,” Webber wrote, using tame words on this issue.

His report defends the timing of the raises, just before the new mayor and city councilors took office, by saying the raises were under discussion as far back as January and it took time to work out details. “There is no reason to think the timing of the raises had anything to do with the City election,” Webber wrote. “If anything, the decision was politically tone-deaf, rather than politically motivated.”

Webber in fact turned his report into something of an inspirational address, asking the Santa Fe citizenry to come together. It concludes, “We can’t afford to let cynicism, self-doubt, or internal strife prevent us from embracing the changes we need to make the City we aspire to be. What I learned – what we can learn together from this issue, arising early in my administration as Mayor – can serve as a way forward, a determination to work together to build trust, fairness, and optimism we need for the future.”

Those are great words. But it’s also hard to disagree with Harris when he said the city manager and assistant city manager had opportunities to inform the council about the raises but didn’t. He said he was offended. “This really cuts to the quick. I’m serious. This just does,” he said. “This one rankles me.”

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