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Webber does ‘damage control’ on raises

SANTA FE, N.M. — Alan Webber responded to his first “test” as Santa Fe’s new mayor by preparing a seven-page report on “Modernization and Temporary Raises” – a response to the controversy over $400,000 in temporary raises the city manager granted to 37 city employees working on a major software update. The report was distributed to city councilors minutes before their meeting Wednesday.

Mayor Alan Webber

Mayor Alan Webber

The city also issued a news release with a copy of the report and several other supporting documents attached to an email one minute after the 5 p.m. meeting’s scheduled start and posted most of the same information on its website for public view.

“I don’t like to play armchair quarterback, but I think (Mayor Webber) still has a chance to salvage this and deal with this,” Joseph Maestas, who vacated his spot on the council to run for mayor, said earlier in the week.

“This is the first test of this administration, and I think a lot of people are paying attention to how the new mayor is going to handle it. He’s doing damage control behind the scenes. But he needs to let everyone know that, ‘I’m taking control. I’m assessing the situation, and I’m going to make a decision.’ ”

That’s essentially what Webber did. He said in the memo that, “As the City’s first full-time, strong mayor, I will assume a direct and ongoing role in the implementation of Project ¡Ãndale! That’s what I was elected to do.”

¡Ãndale! refers to a $4.2 million undertaking to upgrade the city’s computer software and applications and streamline processes in the Land Use, Finance and Human Resources departments.

The mayor’s report was a response to the unannounced decision by the city’s top administrators to implement the raises as Webber was taking office a month ago under a city charter change that gives the mayor new personnel and budgeting authority.

Webber went on to say that the raises, which are good for one year and expire next March, will stand, with a plan to consider raises for Land Use employees involved in the project who so far haven’t received a pay boost. He said he would also launch an effort to reorganize city government and redraw the organizational chart.

10% to 15% raises

The temporary raises were awarded by City Manager Brian Snyder to a select group of employees, without informing the public, the city employees union, Webber, former Mayor Javier Gonzales or the City Council. “Subject Matter Experts” got 10 percent increases and “Functional Leads” were given 15 percent increases, as part of the city’s implementation of ¡Ãndale!

Webber used about a page of his Wednesday report to emphasize the importance of the project. He referred to last September’s McHard Report, a scathing review by private accountants that said the city was at risk of fraud due to its antiquated financial systems, and “complicated, difficult, and challenging” efforts to integrate new software.

Webber said the project was created “to bring Santa Fe government operations into the 21st century. That makes it fundamental to our future.”

The city contracted with Berry Dunn McNeil & Parker to provide consulting services to identify, design, evaluate and plan the switchover from outdated systems. The city also hired Tyler Technologies, which describes itself as “a leading provider of end-to-end information management solutions and services for local governments,” to implement the project. The six-phase project began in late 2016 and is scheduled to be completed by mid-2019.

The 37 employees who got raises are spread across departments, most of them in Finance, eight in Human Resources, two from Information Technology, a pair in Public Works, and one each in the Police and Public Utilities departments and the City Attorney’s Office. Twenty of them got 10 percent pay increases, while 17 received a 15 percent pay bump.

Most of the rewarded employees were already making good money. Only seven were making less than $50,000 per year. The two lowest-paid among that group were making $32,490.

Six were making between $50,000 and $60,000; 11 were paid between $60,000 and $70,000; seven earned between $70,000 and $80,000; four made between $80,000 and $90,000; and two were making more than $90,000 and will now be paid more than $100,000.

Anger all around

The raises set off a firestorm after the Santa Fe New Mexican ran a story about them last week.

“One simple decision to implement temporary raises made virtually everyone angry,” Webber wrote in his report. City councilors were angry they weren’t informed about the raises despite opportunities to do so, the public was angry that it looked like “business as usual” at City Hall, employees were angry they didn’t receive raises while others did, and those who did receive raises were angry that their names appeared in the newspaper in a negative light though they did nothing wrong, he said.

At Wednesday’s meeting, city councilors thanked Webber for his report but expressed irritation over the actions of top management. Councilor Mike Harris said he was offended by

being bypassed, especially when there were opportunities to disclose the information when Deputy City Manager Renee Martinez gave a presentation on the software project to the City Council two weeks earlier.

Three newly elected councilors chimed in. Carol Romero-Wirth called the timing and process used to implement the raises “troubling.” Roman “Tiger” Abeyta said management exercised “poor judgment.” And JoAnne Vigil Coppler said management’ failure to disclose the raises was “disingenuous” and caused her to lose trust.

“In the short tenure I’ve been here, less than $400 has come before us for approval. And I just can’t believe that $400,000 wasn’t,” she said.

In a statement provided to the Journal, the president of the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said the city made a mess of the situation.

“This is now a mess, but that is the result you get when you engage in a secretive process instead of a collaborative one. Management circumvented the collective bargaining rights of employees when awarding these increases,” said Michelle Gutierrez, who works in the Public Works Department. “Despite what has been said publicly, not all the men and women working extra hard on this project have been lucky enough to be included in the raise.”

Miles Conway, a spokesman for the union, said grievances are sure to be filed by workers who aren’t getting temporary pay increases. He said some of the lower-level employees who worked on the project are angry they weren’t included. He noted that there are sanitation workers covering more than one route who are not being paid for their additional duties.

“The way the decision was made is not fostering unity among the local folks,” he said.

Eleven of the 37 people selected for the raises are union members, which puts the local union in a difficult spot. The union supports pay increases for those union members but is also put in the position of arguing that they were favored over other employees.

Authority questioned

“The optics are terrible because of the timing of the decision and the scope and extent of it,” said Maestas, who also wondered whether City Manager Snyder had the authority to spend that much on raises. “That’s a significant budget adjustment. As a reference, with procurement actions anything above $50,000 has to go before the City Council.”

Former City Councilor Carmichael Dominguez had the same concern.

“Without reading too much into it, I don’t think the administration is in a position to amend the budget. Only the governing body can do that,” said Dominguez, who for the last six years chaired the council’s Finance Committee. And once this fiscal year’s budget was approved, only the council had authority to amend it. “It seems to me the way they did it wasn’t right,” Dominguez said, then added after a pause, “Unless I’ve been wrong all these years.”

Under the new charter changes, the mayor, not the city manager, is responsible for presenting an annual budget to the council.

Snyder has justified the raises by saying that the money for the raises was within the software project’s overall budget. It didn’t go through the Finance Committee or City Council because handing out raises is considered a personnel decision and the responsibility of the city manager, he said.

But comparisons could be made between this project and a controversial 2008 parks bond. The city used some of the $30.3 million approved by voters for park improvement to pay employees. In 2016, a special state audit determined that $2 million intended for capital improvements was spent improperly, including on payroll.

The ¡Andale! project is budgeted at $3.7 million, with no money designated for city employee pay, but it has an additional $525,000 tacked on as a contingency fund. Webber’s report called the contingency fund “a common practice in complex software projects where there are always unexpected developments” and said the temporary raises came from the contingency fund.

“Typically, the governing body doesn’t vote on pay raises,” Webber said at Wednesday’s council meeting. “That’s not really the purview of this governing body.”

And while Webber admitted the handling of the raises was “a process failure and a communication flaw,” he said that ultimately it was the right decision to reward city employees playing key roles in an important project. The other options were outsourcing the work to consultants or hiring temporary employees, both of which would have meant more expenses for the city, he said.

He also wrote that the decision “gives us an opportunity to reflect on the way we feel about our City government and our City employees; to pause and think seriously about what we want from City government and for our City employees; and to ask what kind of City we want for ourselves now and in the future. In other words, this one decision – and the project it involves – is ultimately about change and how we make change in a City government that needs fundamental, basic, and far-reaching change.”

It’s not uncommon to see select staff members getting raises before the city manager leaves. Snyder’s predecessor, Robert Romero, dished out 64 raises to nonunion city employees during the five months preceding his resignation, 24 of them six days before he left office in June 2013. He said then the flurry of raises was tied to balancing the 2013-14 budget, which had been approved by the City Council a month earlier.