The mayor’s proposal to give his new assessor a substantial raise hit quicksand at Monday’s City Council meeting.
Slowly but overwhelmingly, arguments against the raise have mounted up. What could have passed a week ago by a close vote is no longer likely to pass at all. So Council President Margaret King took the raise off the agenda and sent it back to committee.
Councilwoman Marion Porterfield persuaded her colleagues to reconsider the raise by gathering data from the state Department of Labor.
The department’s statistics for the Capital Region show that the average assessor is paid $53,010. Experienced assessors are paid, on average, $60,490, while new assessors average a salary of $40,740. The salaries are for all assessors, including small-town and part-time assessors.
All of those figures are well below the proposed salary of $81,828 for new Assessor Edward Waterfield.
Mayor Gary McCarthy has told the council he will appoint Waterfield to the position. But he needs council approval to change the salary, currently set at $73,000.
Even that is still much higher than the average, Porterfield noted.
“[The data] tells me we should really take a look at what we’re paying out,” she said.
Councilman Carl Erikson said the city might need to hire someone else. Waterfield makes $72,825 at his current position as the supervisor of the Bureau of Receipts.
“I understand he won’t take a pay cut,” Erikson said. “At the end of the day, you keep looking. He shouldn’t exceed the market rate.”
Mayor Gary McCarthy argued after the meeting that Waterfield would earn his pay by doing more than the previous assessor. He said Waterfield had proved, in his years as tax collector, that he could handle irate customers and calmly explain city rules. McCarthy said he needed those skills in the assessor’s office, handling complaints from property owners who think they are over-assessed.
“I’ve got to have that position as a functional and key component to marketing Schenectady,” he said. “Some of the issues with assessment — if you’re a new homeowner, the numbers might be 100 percent fair but you don’t understand them.”
He said the assessor must also constantly adjust assessments to meet fluctuations in the market.
“I’m looking to give him more responsibility,” he said.
But several residents spoke against the raise Monday, particularly criticizing Waterfield because he is not certified as an assessor.
Regular critic Jason Planck was contemptuous of the council’s “compromise” last week, in which the council decided informally to give Waterfield a $4,500 raise immediately and another $4,500 after he earned his certification. That compromise was what King pulled from the agenda without a vote Monday.
Planck said they should not offer it again.
“Oh, so we’re going to give this person $4,500 more than the certified assessor?” he asked. “Where are you getting this money from? You keep saying we’re broke, we’re broke.”
Resident Joseph Kelleher, who is running for a council seat, told the council that it was “absurd” to give Waterfield a raise at all.
He should get a lower salary than the previous assessor because he has no experience, Kelleher said.
Resident Mary McClaine, who is also running for a council seat, agreed.
“The individual has not worked with assessment issues, nor does he have the qualifications for the job. Under the circumstances, he should make less, not more,” she said.
Erikson said the council clearly needed more time to consider the appropriate salary.
“The average seems to be quite a bit lower than the proposal,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re making the right decision at the right salary. If we pay too little, we might get substandard service. If we pay too much, we might be wasting taxpayer money, and we don’t want to do that.”
The item will be discussed at next Monday’s council committee meeting at 5:30 p.m.
Fire position added
In other business, the council voted 5-1 to add an assistant fire chief at a salary of $130,000.
Councilman Vince Riggi, who voted against it, questioned the salary. He said the Fire Department asked for the position at a salary of $122,000 in last year’s budget talks.
“We turned it down at 122. Now it’s 130 and we’ll say yes?” he said. “The deputy chiefs are paid $79,000. That’s a big upgrade for a deputy. That’s $50,000!”
But Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo said the position was necessary to train the next fire chief.
“Someday Chief [Michael] Della Rocco will want to retire. We need to create the infrastructure,” she said.
The chief is paid $135,000.