Salaries for nine key administrative positions at Omaha City Hall will be a little more than $270,000 higher than they were at the end of the previous administration, under a budget proposed by Mayor Jim Suttle.
The bulk of the total is allocated for five officials hired under Suttle, who has been dogged by criticism about paying large salaries.
Now, in his 2013 budget, the mayor is proposing another round of raises.
He wants to give salary increases of $25,000 each to his chief of staff and the city's finance director. The public works director and library director would be in line for $9,000 and $10,000 raises, respectively.
Council President Tom Mulligan and Councilman Chris Jerram told The World-Herald they will try to block the increases.
“City Hall is not a place to line your pockets,” Mulligan said. “This is public service. It doesn't sit well with the public; it doesn't sit well with me.”
The five officials receiving notably more than their predecessors are: Chief of Staff Steve Oltmans, Library Director Gary Wasdin, Human Resources Director Richard O'Gara, Finance Director Pam Spaccarotella and Planning Director Rick Cunningham.
Oltmans' raise goes against a pledge that the mayor made in 2009 to freeze salaries within his office throughout his term.
Oltmans is in line to make $150,000 next year. The library director is set to receive $129,737; the public works director, $157,625.
Though Public Works Director Bob Stubbe, an appointee of then-Mayor Mike Fahey, would receive a large raise, his salary in real dollars is still catching up with inflation.
Aida Amoura, a spokeswoman for Suttle, said the mayor decided on his own to give raises — no employee requested a salary increase.
“In the mayor's mind, he's rewarding loyalty and commitment,” Amoura said. “They've worked above and beyond the call of duty for Omaha and the taxpayers.”
Amoura said the higher salaries compared with those from the previous administration are the outcome of Suttle's management strategy. Suttle believes in hiring people from the private sector who will be willing to shake things up, she said.
“You're not going to be able to bring people in to make big changes while paying them a middle manager's salary,” Amoura said.
Though the mayor decides on raises for the department heads, the pay hikes aren't all his idea. The library board, for example, recommends the salary for the library director. The mayor could choose not to adopt that recommendation.
Amoura said raises are based on merit. Oltmans, she said, has taken on a bigger role within the parks department after Parks Director Melinda Pearson resigned in February. Pearson was making about $110,000, Amoura said.
The parks department has an interim director in Brook Bench, who is making around $93,000.
Oltmans said he looks at “big picture issues” while Bench focuses on day-to-day parks matters.
“There's a lot of activity in there,” Oltmans said. “There are 450 lifeguards — just a lot of things going on all the time.”
Oltmans also took on a larger role with the parks department during the flood in 2011.
But after a new parks director is hired, the Mayor's Office said, Oltmans' pay will drop back.
Paul Landow, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who was Fahey's chief of staff, said it's a “strange time” for Suttle to hand out raises.
“You normally wouldn't expect this in an election year,” said Landow, who made about $93,000 when he left the position. “Rational behavior for a politician is to maximize his or her chance of re-election. Giving substantial raises in an election year is not good political strategy.”
The raises are especially puzzling because they are larger than if the officials had received annual increases along the way, Landow said. Typically employees are given annual pay bumps of 2 percent to 3 percent. Oltmans' proposed raise is a bump of 20 percent. Spaccarotella is in line for a raise of 18 percent.
In the months after taking office, Suttle's staff agreed to a pay freeze throughout his term as the mayor looked for ways to save money in the midst of the city's financial problems. Since then, new taxes have alleviated some of the budget pinch, though an unfunded pension liability and a $2 billion sewer system overhaul remain.
“Why grandstand about foregoing a 2 percent raise, then turn around and give 20 percent three years later?” Mulligan wondered.
Mulligan said he asked the mayor to involve the council before he submitted the budget, but that didn't happen. Now, he said, the council will consider a resolution regarding the salary increases.
The council doesn't get a separate vote on department head salaries. If it wants to make a cut, it would have to come through the budget approval process.
Department directors will go before the council to discuss their budgets on Aug. 14. Jerram said he intends to question the department heads on the proposed raises.
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