Raise your hand if this statement gives you at least a twinge of sticker shock: An annual base salary of $157,294 may not be enough to attract suitable candidates for the Arroyo Grande city manager’s job. Just this past week, a recruiting consultant informed the Arroyo Grande City Council that the salary earned by former City Manager Steve Adams — $157,294 — was “very low.” She recommended a salary range between $165,000 and $180,000.
Time for a reality check: We did some checking and found that $157,294 is on the lower end of city manager salaries being offered in California.
But it’s still hard for us to wrap our brains around the idea of paying a new, less experienced city manager substantially more than an outgoing manager with extensive knowledge of the community and many years of experience.
(Yes, Steve Adams left under a cloud, but that doesn’t negate his many achievements and abilities.)
Granted, that’s exactly what occurred in 2009, when SLO City Manager Katie Lichtig was hired on at $221,500 per year — nearly $30,000 more than outgoing City Manager Ken Hampian.
While there was no great hue and cry from the public, there was some grumbling; one Tribune reader suggested that Hampian should sue for lost pay. We, too, raised our eyebrows, though we said then — and we’re even more convinced today — that the City Council was wise to hire Lichtig.
Interestingly, she still earns $221,500, and in fact, takes home 10 percent less in total compensation today than when she was hired, since she gave up a car allowance and other benefits during the financial downturn.
Indeed, many public employees’ salaries have been stagnant for years on account of the recession.
That contributes to the need for Arroyo Grande and other cities to play catch-up when they recruit new employees. For that reason, we won’t quibble if the city needs to boost the starting salary by $5,000 or $10,000 for an exceptional candidate.
We believe, though, that it’s bad public policy to allow salaries to fall too far behind the curve. It’s unfair both to current employees and to their successors, who can face criticism right off the bat for earning what appears to be agreatly inflated salary.
Now that the economy is improving, we urge local agencies that have not already done so to review their salary schedules for management employees and to gradually adjust them if necessary.
We want to stress the word “gradual” — public agencies must continue to be sensitive to what’s happening in the private sector. While there have been some gains, many businesses continue to struggle, and large pay hikes for public employees would be an unfair burden on taxpayers.
We also believe that government agencies owe it to the taxpaying public to take a broad view in setting salaries for management employees by looking beyond the confines of, say, city government and considering comparable positions in other public agencies, as well as in the private sector.
San Luis Obispo County — which once looked only at “comparable counties” — has broadened its approach to include the private sector, with good results.
And please, keep the public well informed of how you arrive at your decisions on compensation.
The more we know, the less likely we are to face sticker shock.