Questions on Raises and Stipends


by Niagara Falls City Councilman Kenny Tompkins

On September 30, my council colleagues and I were handed the 2017 city budget. Over the next several weeks, we’ll individually scrutinize the details enclosed in the thousands of small-print pages of the book that contains the cost and revenue figures our city anticipates over the course of next year.

This is my first city budget and pouring over the contents to identify what is a need vs. a want has been a consuming endeavor to say the least.

Some of the most glaring questions I am raising are the same as many voters and also city hall employees. These concerns are with regard to generous raises and stipends being offered to certain members of the administration. Let’s put things in perspective. The current budget lists a payroll increase of nearly $1 million. Mind you, much of that is contractual. However, of that amount, close to eight percent is allocated to give large raises and stipends to a select few. To me, this is unconscionable.

Social media has been on fire with residents gawking at the sometimes five-figure salary bumps being offered to these individuals. Like you, I have reservations about how these raises can be justified when most residents of this city would be quite happy to even receive the current salaries of these individuals, let alone the proposed hikes. What performance metrics or comparable benchmarks are there to suggest there is a good reason to give someone a $10,000 raise or to bump a position that has been part-time to full-time? I have yet to hear valid arguments from the administration that would sway my opinion in favor of approving these raises. I have heard plenty of reasons NOT to approve them, the chief being we are the highest taxed city in the state and our expenses over the last eight years have exceeded the intake of revenue and rate of inflation.

Stipends are another area that raised my concern. This is additional money given to people for work that isn’t written into their job descriptions, but is essentially part of their jobs.  Does that make sense to you? Let’s phrase this in a simple way. You’re a donut maker. Your job description is to make donuts. You’re paid to make donuts. In order to make donuts, you need to add eggs, flour, and yeast and stir them. Because mixing ingredients was not written into your job description, you get a stipend for performing that duty, even though you need to do this to complete your job.

Do you understand my frustration? It’s not mine alone, though. I’ve been approached by others inside of city hall who have shared their aggravation with this Catch-22 in the way civil service positions are written.

In fact, I’m gathering there’s a great deal of dissatisfaction within 745 Main Street with regard to how positions are appointed. Many roles require that the person who fills them must be from the pool of three with the highest civil service exam scores. However, this is not always happening, according to the people who have approached me. Let’s use the donut maker example again. Let’s say donut making was a civil service position. You and another person have applied for a higher level donut assembly position. You have the highest score on the civil service exam. However, the other candidate, who did not pass the exam, is closely tied to the chief donut maker. Since they can’t give this person the high level position outright, the managers rewrite the job description so that the person they want automatically qualifies. In other words, loopholes that allow bypassing the otherwise-stated rules are often exploited.

While it’s not a practice that’s unique to this administration, my sources suggest that this has become more frequent over the last eight years.

Meanwhile, the frustration with regard to the inclusion of these salaries and stipends continues to mount across the board, both inside and out of city hall. Currently, two of the unions that make up the backbone of our city—the firefighters and the United Steel Workers (which encompasses the bulk of city employees), have gone without a contract since 2013. These hard working men and women are the frontline of our city. We need to be prepared for the results of their negotiations, which could increase our budget more. These are the things I’m taking seriously as I review this budget. It’s why I’m raising these tough questions.

I can’t solve all of administration practices that many people question. But when it comes to the budget, you bet I’m going to do all I can to stop unwarranted spending and make sure money is properly allocated.

I’ll keep you posted on what else I find between now and November 30.

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