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February 18, 2009 - 12:01pm

City employee salary info may not be available until after budget vote

posted by Philip Anselmo in batavia, city council, city.

For those of you who missed it, Daily News reporter Joanne Beck turned out an excellent piece Saturday on the proposed pay raises for city officials. When Beck questioned city leaders about the raises slated for department heads, despite the down economy, and about the significant increase in pay for the assistant city manager—$24,000 more than past assistants—she was accused of being sexist.

From that article:

Council President Charlie Mallow believes it's a ''sexist'' form of badgering for no good reason.

"It seems we have chosen to disrespect and take for granted those who have come in to clean up the mess others have left us with," Mallow said Thursday. "I also believe there is sexism in this whole line of questioning. There are at least four other men that make more money than (Assistant Manager Sally Kuzon) and I don't see repeated questions about them."

Mallow and City Manager Jason Molino felt the same way, they said: The assistant's salary is justified and the topic is not really news. But it wasn't Kuzon, who has worn many hats to oversee public works, community development and code enforcement, being questioned. Her salary of about $84,000 was. Past assistants have made about $60,000.

The issue of salary increases has been raised on a few occasions. When The Batavian asked about the raises for department heads last month, we were told that it was only fair because all the other city employees were guaranteed raises as a result of union contracts.

Mallow told us in an e-mail at the time:

There is a sense of right and wrong here. I do not believe non-union employees should be punished for not being part of a collective barging unit. Keep in mind that our administrative people have worked hand in hand with council to eliminate close to a $3 million dollar spending deficit in the last two years. The hard work of these administrative people reduced the size of city government. Some people out of sheer ignorance would like to single these people out; I think the rest of the community understands how far we have come and who helped us along the way.

Since then we have been trying to break out the budget info that pertains specifically to employee salaries. Last week, in what ought to be the ultimate effort, we filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the city clerk's office. In it, we requested the salaries for all city employees for the current fiscal year, the proposed salaries for the coming year, and those of the previous year.

On February 13, five days after we filed the request, we were informed that it would require 45 days for the city to compile the information. From Heidi Parker, city clerk: "With regards to the request for salary information, gathering that data could take a significant amount of time and therefore will be available within 45 days. I will forward you the information sooner, if I get it before the 45 days."

If you do the math, that would make the information available on March 30. City Council has until March 31 to approve the budget. Right now, they plan to vote well before that date, likely early in March at the next business meeting, we were told.

The question is simple: How can the city justify pay raises when the economy is so obviously in a funk? In downtown Batavia alone, five business have closed their doors since November, and more are rumored to follow suit. More than just a loss to the business community and downtown shoppers and diners, these closures signify a loss of tax revenue.

It turns out we weren't the only ones who had trouble procuring such information. A councilman and the Daily News also ran into road blocks. Fortunately for the Daily, their FOIL request was approved in time.

Councilman Bob Bialkowski has asked to add salaries to the agenda for council's conference meeting Feb. 23. He wants to discuss the topic of salaries versus personnel, he said.

That won't happen during public session, Mallow said. He feels it is about personnel, which is personal, and it won't be a free-for-all in open session, he said.

Bialkowski had asked to get administrative salary information but was rebuffed by council, he said. He was not aware what the top salaries were until they were published in The Daily News recently, he said. That information, which was obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request, listed the assistant manager's salary at the top with $83,959, followed by the city manager's salary at $83,487. Those salaries are contingent on a proposed 2.85 percent raise in the 2009-10 budget. City Council has until March 31 to adopt a final budget.

Howard B. Owens
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It's nice to know the city is saving money on expensive computers by still keeping its payroll on index cards and ledger books. I mean, how else to explain a 45-day lag to produce something that a computer can spit out in a few seconds?
Charlie Mallow
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First off we are talking about seven people not getting a 2.8% raise who haven’t gotten a raise in two years. In fact, they made less money last year because we raised their contributions for health coverage. Another subject has to do with our union contracts. The new four year agreements that we signed a couple years back helped us out by getting the unions to agree to 0% increase the first year when we really needed it bad. The next year was 2.5% then 2.8%. You’re dreaming if you think you are going to do better than that. Then there is this LIE about Sally being paid more than anyone else. You repeated it again in this report. There are four other employees’ who make more than Sally and Jason. I guess, how this is done is you look for the highest paid women and beat the crap out of her for doing a good job. If you’re going to call Sally on the carpet, I guess you should look at the real difference between her and the last asst city manager. First off, Sally does two jobs. She is the Asst. City manager and the head of the DPW. We eliminated a job and gave her two to deal with. Then I guess you can’t FOIL her job performance so, you simply don’t care that the city with the aid of Sally accumulated $580,000 in grants this year, when without her we got virtually nothing for years. As for Bob not getting information, that was a misprint and he has told me that he already reported that to the paper. If you want information about the budget quickly, go online to the city’s site. The budget is there. Use a calculator. We are not going to pay people overtime to go on wild goose chases.
Philip Anselmo
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Charlie: A couple points here. 1. No one lied here about anything. You're twisting words and then accusing us of lying. That's not fair. Where does it say that Kuzon was being paid more than anybody else? Nowhere. It says that she is being paid more than "past assistants." Is that false? It's just astounding that you would accuse people of being sexist for questioning a pay raise for a city employee. It's a perfectly valid inquiry. Besides, we asked for salaries for ALL city employees, not just Kuzon. 2. Looking at the budget, it is not possible to determine the actual salaries of employees. To tell us that we just need to go look it up and use a calculator is not true. The budget is broken down by department, and some departments budget lines often appear in several different places. Why should it take "overtime" to run a check on salaries? Doesn't the city have that information readily available? Doesn't the city know how much it is paying its employees? One shouldn't have to create an algorithm and hire an accountant to decipher the budget to get to that info, and I have to believe the city doesn't do it that way either. 3. As always, thanks for coming on and sharing your views.
Charlie Mallow
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1. This has nothing to do with you and I'm not going to elaborate on that any further. If passing four men by to single out a woman isn’t sexism, what is? 2. We have reduced the size of city government. There are no idle hands. 3. I don’t mean any ill will towards you or Howard, you both should know that by now. I’m sorry if it came off too harsh but, I’m going to defend our city employees. They do a fine job and deserve some respect. I’m tired of hearing people beat them up. They go to work every day and earn their pay checks, just like everyone else. No one is getting rich doing admin work at city hall.
Howard B. Owens
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Charlie, as always thanks for the comment. We realize there's nothing personal in it and you're going to defend the employees, and that's great. But this isn't really about the employees -- though it directly effects them -- it's about fiscal issues. People will have different opinions about the validity of the pay raises, but those opinions should at least be buttressed by all relevant information. Requesting the salaries should be a simple request. In fact, it's so simple, it shouldn't even require a formal FOIL. I'm flabbergasted that it takes 45 days to supply this information. This is no shot at Jason, but come on, really ... as city manager, shouldn't he have this information at his finger tips, especially at budget time? Even if he doesn't, it shouldn't require one minute of overtime for the city to supply the information to inquiring media, council members or any citizen off the street. It's just downright fishy that the request hasn't already been fulfilled.
Charlie Mallow
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Howard, Jason has told me that in order to remain efficient he has to prioritize everything. FOIL requests are at the bottom of the list. Service levels to our citizens come first. I know these things are great for discussion sake but, we are not a big city like New York or Boston. We don’t have a staff of people sitting around with nothing to do. We live in a small town; nothing is happening that fast around here. So to say someone is trying to hide something because they need time would be untrue. There is a rule of thumb, information that was worthwhile to ask for should be still worthwhile 45 days later.
Mark Potwora
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Who are the four that make more than the city manager...That should be a quick and easy answer...Are they the same ones who wanted to have the residency waiver..The mayor of Rochester just said he would fore go his raise this year,even through the unionized city employees are getting theirs.I do not think the Daily News was being sexist for asking why the asst manger makes 24000 dollars more than past asst mangers..Thanks Charlie for clearing up why..Sexist is a strong term..I'm sure if it was a man the same question would be asked..Great reporting Philip.. I see two more businesses leaving the city to go to the town of Batavia.
Howard B. Owens
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Charlie, answering FOIL requests for the media is a citizen service. It should be a priority for any government that believes in serving the taxpayers. Further, information often has time value. Information of value today could be absolutely worthless in 45 days. As a hypothetical example, what if a person issued a FOIL request 40 days before an election and the results of that information could decide who wins or loses the race. Is that information still valuable on the 41st day? Obviously, not. This is probably something you and I will continue to disagree on, Charlie, but I believe when government agencies drag their heels on fulfilling FOIL requests, there's some other agenda at work. In this case, we're talking about information that should take no more than five minutes to retrieve and put an envelop and let Philip know it's ready for pick up. It's ludicrous to think a city staff member can't do that by tomorrow afternoon.
Andrew Erbell
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Wow, simply fascinating stuff. Between this and the breaking Grasso story I smell a Pulitzer.
Howard B. Owens
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Or at least a giant pretzel.
Rose Mary Christian
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Phil, Just some clarification on the freedom of information law for you and your readers. I will not copy all of the foil but the most important part to help you out with it. “ One of the greatest concerns of local government officials is their rights and obligations under the Freedom if Information Law (FOIL). This statutory authority, which can be found in Article 6 of the Public Officers Law, sets the guidelines for the accessibility of public records to the general public. It is also an area that is constantly being interpreted by the courts. There are certain exceptions which yours is not under. Records of law enforcement, endanger the life or safety of any person, computer access codes and etc. In addition, municipalities must create and maintain records of : all final votes of each member of the governing body: the names, public address, title and salary of all officers and employees: and a subject matter list of all government records. Must designate a person, known as the records access officer, to handle all FOIL request. This person is usually, but not required to be, the clerk. Each municipality must establish regulations, in accordance with FOIL, to administer FOIL request. While municipalities have clear and substantial obligations under FOIL, they also have certain statutory rights. Specifically, a municipality may request that any Foil inquiry be in writing. After receipt of the written request, the records access officer has five business days to act on the request, either granting or denying it. A denial must advise the requesting party of the right to appeal within thirty days to the municipality’s governing body or chief executive officer. Within ten business day of the appeal, a response must be made to the applicant which, either grants the request or explains the denial. The municipality must notify the Commission on Open Government of all appeals and appeal decisions”. Also a fee can be charged per copy $.25
Philip Anselmo
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Charlie: I know you would never harbor any ill will or be purposefully harsh. That's why your comments are so appreciated here. And we're always glad to have them. In fact, it may have been me who overreacted a bit in my initial reply to your comment. I only meant to point out that nowhere had I lied or acted in a sexist manner. I think I showed that. Thanks again (and always) for your participation.
Howard B. Owens
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Rose Mary, thank you for leaving a comment and further information on FOIL. Here's the full text of the law. One point of clarification, an agency has an out on delivering the documents within five days. An agency can respond within five days and say, "we'll get this to you by such and such date" ... and it needs to be a reasonable date to fulfill the request. I think New York has a great preamble to his open records law, which I think shows clear legislative intent that FOIL not be used as an excuse to delay or obfuscate public documents requests. Clearly, the Legislature intends that government operate with complete and prompt transparency.
"The legislature hereby finds that a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions. The more open a government is with its citizenry, the greater the understanding and participation of the public in government. As state and local government services increase and public problems become more sophisticated and complex and therefore harder to solve, and with the resultant increase in revenues and expenditures, it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible. The people's right to know the process of governmental decision-making and to review the documents and statistics leading to determinations is basic to our society. Access to such information should not be thwarted by shrouding it with the cloak of secrecy or confidentiality. The legislature therefore declares that government is the public's business and that the public, individually and collectively and represented by a free press, should have access to the records of government in accordance with the provisions of this article."

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