Wage report: More questions than answers

July 02, 2006|by TIM ROWLAND

As someone who is no stranger to typos, I hate to be picky. But when a consultant report begins its letter of introduction with "Springsted Incorporated is please to provide the City of Hagerstown..." and "Springsted expresses it's thanks..." it justifies the raising of an eyebrow, especially when $5 million hangs in the balance.

Maybe Springsted needs to conduct "it's" own internal salary study, which may indicate it needs a wage hike to pay for better proofreaders.

The upshot is that if you're paying for a study that is going to boost the city budget by $5 million over three years, you kind of hope that you are basing your decision on impeccable accuracy.

Springsted does make good points about pay, most notably that lowballing public workers can be penny wise and pound foolish. High turnover strains remaining employees and inflates costs in terms of training and lost expertise.


To that end, the City of Hagerstown hired Springsted to survey jobs that are comparable and recommend a revamped pay scale.

The council approved the plan 3-2, although how they knew what they were approving it is difficult to say.

There are so many unknowns, moving targets and unclear methodology, that it's hard to tell whether this is a good idea or not.

For example, some of the jurisdictions Hagerstown was compared to were Annapolis, Md., Manassas, Va., and Howard County, Md. You have to wonder whether any of the council members have been to Manassas lately. Or Columbia.

True, there is some value in knowing what a Hagerstown city employee could potentially earn by moving east. But Hagerstown ain't Annapolis, and it's folly to think we should be attempting to compete dollar for dollar. And the report says nothing about the values Hagerstown has over the cities, such as quality of life and cost of living.

The report makes several references to the city's high turnover rate, but never mentions what that rate is, or in which departments the greatest turnover occurs.

It places significant weight on interviews with city employees, which is proper - but then, if you ask a group of any employees anywhere whether they make enough money, how many are going to say, "Yes, plenty, thanks for asking."

It is also curious why comparable jobs in the local private sector were not more carefully analyzed. Springsted said it sent out surveys to one large, local private employer and four private utilities, but only heard back from two of the utilities.

But the U.S. Department of Labor keeps pretty detailed information about local wages. This resource apparently wasn't tapped. Or if it was, it somehow reconciled the fact that a city greenskeeper could be making far more than the average local, licensed practical or vocational nurse.

The lowest-grade park maintenance worker for the city could be making $22,000 to $35,000, but similar work in the private sector in 2003 was averaging $22,000. Viewed as such, this terrible turnover may not be such a bad thing - if a $35,000 maintenance worker leaves for greener pastures and you can replace him with a $22,000 maintenance worker.

Indeed, the salary range proposed by Springsted is pretty impressive. An economic development director, for example, should make somewhere between $64,500 and $103,200. Gee, thanks for that. Why didn't they just recommend that the city pay its economic development director "a lot."

Of course on a subject as nebulous as job positions and salaries, it is easy to poke holes, and to be fair, many of Springsted's proposed salaries seem high, but not outrageously so.

Further, although it goes against popular sentiment, I don't think it's smart to lowball government employees. They work for us, and unlike a private business, we cannot go to some other competitor if we are dissatisfied with the service.

But all this report does is convince me that Hagerstown salaries are low when compared to the outlying city suburbs. And I already knew that.

Voting against the plan, council members Kristin Aleshire and Kelly Cromer properly pointed to the report's flaws, and Cromer made the additional argument that it was unfair to help pay for the plan by scuttling a share of retired employee health costs.

Cromer's point is well-taken, because the city's stated goal is to hire and retain good employees. Aside from the obvious pain this causes for retirees, it seems to me it's a very bad message to send to new hires: Here's our retirement package, but keep in mind we may jack with it any time we're in the mood.

Aleshire warned the raises also set the table for a tax increase, and he's probably right. (Unlike the federal government, at least Hagerstown seems to be acknowledging that new initiatives have to be paid for.)

Is some wage hike and some corresponding tax increase good policy? Probably. But probably not to the extent Springsted recommends.

It's easy for a consultant to recommend fat pay raises that the consultant does not have to fund. Were Springsted responsible for paying a share of the proposed wage hike out of its own pocket - as city taxpayers are - I suspect "it's" findings might have been curiously different.

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