Click below to read earlier stories about raises for officials in the Suttle administration:
It turns out that the raises for top Omaha city officials supposedly proposed in Mayor Jim Suttle's annual budget aren't just proposed. At Suttle's direction, a number of significant raises for top officials went into effect in January, unbeknownst to the public or the City Council.
Suttle approved the raises despite a pledge to freeze department heads' salaries throughout his term and despite a pledge to bring transparency to the budget process.
Now council members, who found out about the earlier raises this week, are taking Suttle to task on the issue of transparency.
Early in his term, Suttle criticized former Mayor Mike Fahey for lacking transparency and using “fuzzy math” in his budgets.
“Why accuse a former mayor of having fuzzy math, and then turn around and carry on the tradition?” asked City Council President Tom Mulligan. “If this isn't fuzzy, what is?”
Mulligan, acting mayor this week while Suttle is out of town, requested documents showing the salaries for the mayor's staff and department heads when researching the proposed 2013 city budget, which appeared to build in several raises.
In fact, those raises — which ranged from $9,000 to $25,000 — were implemented as the current fiscal year started in January. But the current 2012 budget, which Suttle proposed and the council approved, doesn't include those higher salaries.
The mayor has the power to give raises to non-unionized employees so long as no department goes over budget. It probably happened several times under Fahey, said Carol Ebdon, a professor of public administration at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Fahey's director of finance.
Aida Amoura, spokeswoman for Suttle, said mistakes were made, but she didn't say what the mistakes were. If the office could do it again, it would have been more open with the public about the raises when they were enacted, Amoura said.
“He fell short in being a great politician. He falls short there,” she said.
Amoura defended the raises, saying they were well-earned in a trying 2011.
Pam Spaccarotella, the city's finance director, protected the city's AAA bond rating even as the country as a whole saw its bond rating dip to AA+, Amoura said. Steve Oltmans, the mayor's chief of staff, took on a big role in the Parks Department during the historic flooding last summer, she said.
“I think (Suttle) just wanted to reward people for going above and beyond the call of duty,” Amoura said.
She took issue with council members' contention that the mayor wasn't being transparent. Amoura went as far as saying Suttle proved that he wasn't trying to hide anything by putting the raises in next year's budget — months after the raises went into effect.
She said she didn't believe that raises would be given out again without some sort of public acknowledgment. “I hope we've learned our lesson, but again, I don't think he thought it was a big deal,” she said.
Without funds budgeted for the raises, it was not immediately clear where the money came from to pay them. The mayor's staff suggested that the money could have come from positions that were open between hires.
Mulligan didn't accept that.
“I found some money, so I'm going to give out some raises?” he said. “That doesn't wash. Why not put it toward the bottom line? Why not offset some of our expenses we don't have money for?”
Council member Franklin Thompson said he believes that the Mayor's Office is being dishonest about how the raises were funded.
“What the mayor is doing is using some of the extra money from the restaurant tax to supplement things he wants that he hasn't talked to the council about,” he said.
Councilman Chris Jerram said the situation was “a surprise and great disappointment.”
“It undermines the public trust in their elected officials when they see a budgeted number, with promises of pay freezes, and then sneaky maneuvers are used to award more compensation to people above what's been represented,” Jerram said.
Councilwoman Jean Stothert, who is running for mayor against Suttle, said she believes that the Mayor's Office was purposely dishonest about the raises. She said she asked
Spaccarotella specifically about raises for non-unionized employees and was told that they would be held at 1.75 percent.
“This is a heck of a lot more, and it's her own salary,” Stothert said. “It's been very difficult for me to feel that answers are truthful and forthcoming.”
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