STAMFORD – If you added up the salary increases and subtracted them from the proposed city budget, it probably would not lessen the large tax hike expected for the coming fiscal year.
But the pay raises push buttons.
In Mayor Caroline Simmons’ budget proposal for 2023-24, the director of the Office of Operations will get a $13,497 raise, bringing his pay to $184,292, the salary of Simmons’ cabinet members.
Three special assistants to the mayor, who work in Simmons’ office and earn, on average, $100,000 apiece, will get 8 percent raises. City union employees generally get raises that are a third of that.
The salary of the mayor’s chief of staff will jump from $160,750 to $184,292. It’s a 14.6 percent raise, or $23,542 more.
Notations in Simmons’ budget indicate that raises are the result of annual pay rate hikes and scheduled incremental increases, but it could be that some also reflect a jump from a partial year’s pay to a full year’s pay.
That could have happened because Simmons was elected in December 2021, and some employees may not have started working in the administration right away. If they were paid for only some months in 2022, the budget would reflect a jump to 12 months’ pay in 2023.
But the increases and the salaries can be difficult for taxpayers to digest in Stamford where, according to the U.S. Census, the typical household earns about half of what members of the mayor’s cabinet earn.
“That’s actually crazy,” said taxpayer Rosemary DeLeo, who lives in Glenbrook, a modest mixed-use neighborhood of middle-class homes.
“So that one person is getting a raise of almost $2,000 a month,” DeLeo said. “I can’t afford to fix my driveway or update my house because that money goes to paying my taxes every year. My taxes are now $11,168. I’m going to be 65 this year, and I’m thinking, ‘Am I getting taxed out of my own house?’”
High-flying house prices
DeLeo, like many Stamford residents, is worried about last year’s property revaluation, mandated by the state every five years. Stamford’s revaluation took place when home prices were inflated by surging demand created when New Yorkers sought out the more spacious suburbs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They sold the house across from me for over $600,000. I couldn’t believe the price,” DeLeo said.
City property records show that a little two-bedroom ranch on DeLeo’s street fetched $620,000.
“It helped drive up our property values,” DeLeo said. “Just in time for the reval.”
Simmons has said that the revaluation increased residential real estate assessments by an average of 25 percent. That, along with Simmons’ requested $655 million budget – a 3.7 percent increase over this year – will drive tax bills higher than usual for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Property taxes will increase by about 6.5 percent on average, Board of Finance Chairman Richard Freedman said during a March 27 meeting of the Board of Representatives’ Fiscal Committee. Tax hikes in recent years have been a third to a half of that.
As it is, the average Stamford homeowner pays $12,000 a year in taxes, Freedman said.
DeLeo pays just under that.
“C’mon,” she said. “People have limited incomes. My income isn’t going to go up a few hundred a month to be able to pay these extra taxes. They have to stop with these large salaries and excessive increases. There has to be some kind of balance.”
Paychecks incite interest
Each year about four-fifths of the operating budget goes to employee salaries and benefits. The budget submitted by Simmons now is wending its way through the Board of Finance and Board of Representatives, which must approve it by May 9.
The large salaries draw attention.
In the 2023-24 budget, the director of the Office of Policy & Management will earn $174,688.
The Director of Administration, after a $3,449 raise, will earn $184,292.
The Police Chief will earn $174,688 after a slightly smaller raise.
The new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer also will earn $174,688.
The mayor’s salary will increase from $192,186 to $196,509, a 2.2 percent raise. To put the amount in context, when the New London City Council approved a major pay raise for that mayor in June, members said the $160,000 salary was among the highest in the state. Simmons will earn about $36,500 more than that under the new budget.
Lauren Meyer, special assistant to Simmons, said Friday the position of mayor is part of the city’s non-union Pay Plan, which includes the cabinet-level executives who earn some of the largest salaries in the city.
The Pay Plan allows for automatic increases for certain elected and appointed officials. It uses grades, or salary ranges associated with each position, Meyer said. Each grade has a number of steps, which are incremental salary increases.
So each year an employee may get a step increase and a pay rate hike – two raises at once – until they reach the top step in their grade.
Six figures the norm
Under the Pay Plan, the mayor’s salary increases at 115 percent of Step 3 of Grade 8, Meyer said. The town clerk’s salary increases at 80 percent of Step 3 of Grade 8. Other positions in the Pay Plan have their own rates; all are adjusted periodically, Meyer said.
Simmons’ budget includes a number of new union positions, including a Career Development Specialist for $115,084 in the Human Resources Department; and, in the Land Use Bureau, a Housing Coordinator for $101,889 and Housing Planning Manager for $121,980.
Democrat Mary Lou Rinaldi, vice chair of the Stamford Board of Finance, said most new positions come with six-figure salaries.
“Almost every time they add a person, it’s at least $100,000,” Rinaldi said. “By my estimation, at least half of city employees are making over $100,000.”
Meyer said new positions are approved by the Personnel Commission, which negotiates a salary range – or grade – with the union representing that position.
“Stamford has been doing a lot of competitive pricing to see what other municipalities are paying employees,” Rinaldi said. “It used to be that municipalities gave good benefits to keep salaries low. Now we are paying market price for higher-level positions. The best indication of that is to look at how many are making more than $100,000, though in recent years they are contributing more toward their benefits.”
Fellow finance board member J.R. McMullen, a Republican, said that when Stamford residents compare their salaries to those of municipal employees, “it seems out of whack.”
“There was this old social contract — if you work for government, you don’t make a lot of money but you have pretty good benefits and they take care of you for life. But today if you work in government you make a better salary than the average person and they still take care of you for life,” McMullen said. “The average municipal worker used to make what average residents make, but it’s not that way any more.”
A press release about salaries issued by Simmons’ office last year backs that up. In it, Simmons said city salaries are comparable to private-sector salaries but city health, pension and paid time off benefits are “significantly higher.”
McMullen said he thinks “some of the salaries are ridiculous – not most of them, but some.”
He said he sometimes shares a concern he hears from constituents “that the average government employee is living off the backs of people who make quite a bit less than they do. I think there’s that perception and belief that city employees are doing a lot better than the average resident. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s 20 percent better.”
You just can’t get ahead
Rinaldi said residents can be assured that Board of Finance members will examine the budget closely for savings.
Board of Representatives President Jeff Curtis said the situation is troubling.
“I originally heard that the mayor wanted to keep the budget flat, but that didn’t happen,” Curtis said. “I’m sure our board’s Fiscal Committee will be very thorough in going through the budget, and I’m sure there will be considerable questions. All I can say is that the members of the Board of Representatives are taxpayers, too, so we understand residents’ concerns.”
Nina Sherwood, majority leader of the Board of Representatives, said she has the same comment now as she did during the administration of previous Mayor David Martin.
“The residents of the City of Stamford should not be in a position to consistently pay massive salaries. Working for the city and being in the mayor’s cabinet or another high position should be because you want to serve, not make a big salary,” Sherwood said. “It’s not sustainable for residents to have to keep giving huge increases when people are struggling to pay their taxes, especially in a re-val year.”
DeLeo said she’ll be watching to see what elected officials do.
“One year my taxes went up more than $900; I was livid. Now I’m thinking this year is going to be worse,” DeLeo said. “I mean, how much farther can it go? It’s like you’re not allowed to get ahead.”