STAMFORD — At last count, 30 percent of full-time city and school employees earned six-figure annual salaries.
The 2017 percentage, the most recent available, continued a trend. It began in 2011, when the high-earner count quadrupled. From then until 2017, the number of municipal employees earning at least $100,000 increased 131 percent.
By comparison, payscale.com reports that the average individual salary in Stamford last year was $70,091.
Mayor David Martin’s administration has yet to release the 2018 salary data, requested by The Advocate in January. But it’s budget season, and members of the elected boards are combing through the mayor’s $603 million spending request for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Not all of the elected officials who will cut Martin’s budget over the next two weeks said salary is a major factor.
Martin’s proposal calls for his four cabinet members — Director of Administration Michael Handler, Director of Legal Affairs Kathryn Emmett, Director of Public Safety Ted Jankowski, and Director of Operations Mark McGrath — to get 2.9 percent raises, bringing each from $165,132 a year to $169,896.
Martin’s raise will be bigger - 3.6 percent - taking his annual compensation from $175,661 to $182,066.
That concerns Kieran Ryan, a Republican member of the Board of Finance, which will take up the mayor’s budget Monday.
“One might argue the salaries of most rank-and-file city workers are reasonable, but at the top levels, management and department heads, many salaries are surely generous, and for the mayor and his cabinet ... salaries are very high,” Ryan said.
Martin’s chief of staff, for example, will earn nearly $170,000 come July 1, Ryan said.
“This is a position that did not exist a few years ago. It might be a good idea for a city of Stamford’s size and complexity to have a chief of staff, but does that salary really need to be the rough equivalent of the governor of New Jersey’s?” Ryan said of Gov. Phil Murphy, who according to NJ.com earns $175,000 a year.
“And why,” Ryan continued, “does the mayor of Stamford at $182,000 need to make substantially more than the governor of Connecticut’s salary of $150,000?”
Martin emailed a statement saying his administration “is a collection of incredibly qualified professionals that any resident in Connecticut should want to have running their city. Our team includes a former judge, business owners, military personnel and business consultants who have an established background of effective leadership. We believe we’ve assembled one of the most credentialed teams of top managers in the city’s history. We believe our staff’s compensation is reasonable, given their responsibilities and the amount of work their position entails.”
The budget shows that salaries for existing employees are slated for raises that range from less than 1 percent to more than 10 percent.
A number of employees will get .8 percent raises, likely fixed by their union contracts. The salary for a head cashier in the tax office, for example, will increase from $59,894 to $60,351.
Some of the bigger hikes may include retroactive pay after union contracts went unsettled for a time. That may explain, for example, a 10.9 percent raise for a master mechanic at the transfer station, whose salary will increase from $71,234 to $78,979.
Not just salary
The Board of Representatives gets Martin’s budget May 1.
Rep. Bob Lion, D-19, said salary is only one measure when he considers cuts. The other is job function.
“Unless you’re familiar with what the employees do, it’s difficult to evaluate whether their salaries are high or low or indifferent,” Lion said. “The questions for me are: What do they do? Do we need this done? And is the salary in line?”
Like Lion, Rep. Nina Sherwood, D-8, said salary is only one factor.
“I also like to know that, if the top people are getting raises, are the lower people in that department also getting raises?” Sherwood said. “The people the government employs should be paid well enough to contribute to the local economy. But if the people at the top are extracting more and more, it doesn’t make for a well-based economy.”
Beyond that, “There are definitely some people who are making way more money than the taxpayers of Stamford can handle,” Sherwood said.
The bill payers
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in Stamford in 2017 was $84,893. Compare that with a finding by the Economic Policy Institute, which reported last year that for a Stamford family of four to live a “modest yet adequate standard of living,” annual earnings must be $118,551.
“I’m concerned that we have some city employees whose salaries are relatively low compared to the private sector, yet they get a benefits package that far outweighs what you get in the private sector, so their total compensation far outweighs what the average person in Stamford earns,” said Rep. J.R. McMullen, R-18.
Still, “it’s hard to say we should hire a lower-quality employee because the benefits are too much,” Rep. Eric Morson, D-13, said. “The long-term costs can be worse.”
It’s why overtime expenditures aren’t always bad, Morson said.
“An employee making $50,000 a year can cost $40,000 in benefits. Plus, that $50,000 is fully pensionable. But the overtime only costs time-and-a-half,” Morson said. “So sometimes it costs less to pay overtime than put another person on staff. It’s hard to find the balance.”
Rep. Jonathan Jacobson, D-12, said salaries can be a source of frustration for the board.
“If position A pays $100,000 a year, we don’t have the power to say cut it to $80,000. We can either move forward with the position or strike it,” Jacobson said.
Sal Gabriele, a Republican on the finance board, said he watches the salaries for new positions.
“Say a city employee who was hired in 2008 at $90,000 leaves in 2018 earning $120,000. Sometimes the new person comes in at $110,000,” Gabriele said. “Some of these new hires could be brought in at less.”
The city and school system are the largest employers in Stamford, with 3,292 full-time workers, according to the 2018 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. The number has grown by 296 employees since a decade ago.
Rep. John Zelinsky, D-11, said his concern is that Martin’s budget proposal comes with a 4.4 percent tax increase.
“Every year taxes go up,” Zelinsky said. “I think we need to save the taxpayers some money.”