Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Earlier this month, thousands of city of Albuquerque employees received a 2% raise built into the current budget.
But for dozens of high-ranking employees, the 2% increase came on top of significant raises granted earlier this year.
Nearly 50 employees in unclassified positions – those who serve at the discretion of Mayor Tim Keller’s administration – received a separate raise in March. The average March increase for the group was 6.2%, and it lifted the subset’s average annual salary to $118,959.
Keller’s office has defended the hikes, citing higher pay rates in state government and around the region.
“By offering more comparable salaries, our goal is to attract and retain talented leaders to serve the City of Albuquerque,” Keller’s chief of staff, Santiago Chavez, said in a written statement to the Journal.
But the hikes have elicited ire from one elected official.
City Councilor Trudy Jones called them “disgraceful,” pointing to the increasing disparity between those at the upper and lower ends of the city pay scale.
“I believe it’s unconscionable. … We have some employees who barely get raises,” she said.
On a percentage basis, the largest raises in the unclassified employee ranks went to Police Chief Michael Geier and department directors Nyika Allen (Aviation), Synthia Jaramillo (Economic Development), Anna Sanchez (Senior Affairs) and Matthew Whelan (Solid Waste), according to salary data provided to the Journal through a public records request.
Each received a 12% raise in March.
After the more recent 2% increase, Geier now is paid $190,736 annually, while the other four receive $122,408.
Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Rael and Fire Chief Paul Dow received 10.6% raises in March and then an additional 2% increase this month. Rael now is paid $188,718, and Dow’s salary increased to $153,005.
Chief Financial Officer Sanjay Bhakta and City Clerk Katy Duhigg saw 9% increases earlier this year and, with the additional 2% bump, now make $147,909 and $122,408, respectively.
The raises for unclassified workers are determined by Sarita Nair, Keller’s chief administrative officer. A spokeswoman said Nair makes the decisions in consultation with other members of the mayor’s executive team.
Keller determines Nair’s salary after consulting with other officials in his administration, spokeswoman Jessie Damazyn said.
Nair salary increased 11% in March. With the extra 2% this month, she now receives $193,814.
Still lagging behind
Keller’s administration says top administrator salaries still lag behind those of other regional markets as well as high-ranking jobs in state government.
City Councilor Pat Davis said the council does not have authority to dictate salaries for the appointed city officials, but he did not object to the recent raises. He said the city has struggled to keep top managers who can earn more elsewhere.
“I want to see us be competitive,” he said.
But Davis said he would like to see improved pay for what he called the city’s front-line workers, saying it should not be an “either/or” situation.
City Councilor Diane Gibson said what Keller has done is not out of the norm, but expressed concern that lower-paid city workers continue to be left behind.
“I think that every mayor (gives raises to appointed administrators). I don’t necessarily agree with it, because we routinely hold the lowest-paid employees down. If you’re making $100,000 a year and I’m making $30,000 a year, a 2% raise to you is $2,000; 2% for me would be $600,” she said. “Of course, I would take it, absolutely, but I see in the long run that we’re not doing enough.”
One former city leader said the officials’ increased salaries are not necessarily unreasonable. Former Albuquerque Mayor Jim Baca said the $120,000 range for a department director is reasonable – perhaps even a little low.
“Those are pretty complex jobs, with a lot of employees and headaches, and if you’re going to keep good people, you’ve got to pay them,” Baca said.
But Baca said it is an issue that the average city worker’s raise is not commensurate with that of the top administrators.
“Probably (classified) city employees ought to get a little more money than they’re making,” he said.
Keller’s chief of staff noted that all city employees got 2% pay increases last year and this year. Police saw even more. Last year’s city budget had 10.2% increases for police in the officers’ bargaining unit; this year’s budget includes $5 million for police raises and longevity pay.
But when it comes to higher-ranking positions, Chavez said city of Albuquerque pay lags, saying it remains lower than that of comparable cities in the Southwest even after the raises. (See the chart for a Journal review of municipal government salaries in other regional markets.)
Chavez also noted that the city has lost some top employees – including former Office of Management and Budget Director Olivia Padilla-Jackson and film office head Alicia J. Keyes – to state government. Each is now a Cabinet secretary for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, positions that pay $150,000 a year.
Albuquerque also recently lost Planning Director David Campbell, who would be making $122,408 as of this month. He left to become city manager in Rio Rancho, a job that pays $175,000.
Campbell said salary played no part in his decision to leave. Rather, he wanted the professional opportunity to run one of New Mexico’s largest cities.
But Campbell – who formerly was Albuquerque’s city attorney and its chief administrative officer – said the local government pay makes it challenging to retain executive-level staff.
In Rio Rancho, he said, “I share the concern about being competitive and getting talent that will provide excellent service to the public.”