ITHACA, N.Y.—Members of the Common Council discussed changes in salaries for elected officials in 2024, including alderpersons, the mayor and the new city manager at a committee meeting Wednesday.
Most of the meeting was spent on talk about the new city manager, whose initial potential salary could be 20% higher than the $165,000 figure that was proposed in 2021. This figure does not include additional costs of benefits associated with the position.
Now, the council is leaning towards a higher salary range for the position, between $175,000 and $200,000, to meet industry standards. An agreement was reached to lower the mayor’s existing salary to adjust for the sizable increase in compensation needed to attract a qualified candidate for city manager.
The original purpose of holding a procedural Committee of the Whole meeting was to gather members to finalize the details of the city manager role and structure, so at the next meeting on August 2, members could vote into law the new amendment to the city charter.
But members and Mayor Laura Lewis focused mainly on discussions of salary, and tabled specific critiques of the amendment for the next meeting.
Lewis sent members the amendment draft Monday, just two days before the meeting was scheduled. Alderperson Jorge DeFendini said he was uncomfortable moving forward with the amendment as scheduled because he “needed more time” to delve into the specifics to make recommendations for changes and edits. The sentiment was shared by other members of the council.
Ian Coyle, founder and president of Pracademic Partners, LLC, was contracted by the council to assist in developing employment specifics for the new role of city manager, as well as participate in the selection process.
He conducted market research and surveys to determine the ideal salary range city managers look for when applying for new jobs in the industry. That range, he said, is “much higher” than the figure offered now.
The transition to a city manager form of government was proposed by former Mayor Svante Myrick in 2021. The same year, a working group was formed to conduct research into job specifics, like salary ranges, for the new city manager position. Two acting members of Common Council, Donna Fleming and Rob Gearhart, were a part of this group.
The working group used outdated data from 2018, collected by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), to decide on a salary range. The data outlined $165,000 as the median salary range for city managers in cities similar in size to Ithaca.
Unfortunately, Coyle said this organization no longer collects data on salaries, but if it did, adjusted for inflation, he believes the median today would be closer to $175,000-$200,000.
Gearhart said the market research the group used was “clearly incorrect.”
The public, as well as council members, voted to approve the transition to a city manager form of government in a ballot referendum in November 2022, under the impression it would be less expensive than Coyle outlined at the meeting.
Now, the council’s task to stamp down the specifics of the role, including salary, must happen soon, preferably at the meeting on August 2, so Coyle can list the job posting and start receiving applications.
Coyle told members that the market for attracting qualified city managers to new cities is “ultra competitive,” and in order to pique the interest of talented applicants, the council needs to increase the range of salary it is offering now. Particularly if the council wants to attract nation-wide applicants, which, according to Coyle, it does.
He said he believes that the most qualified candidates are attracted to the higher salary range, and will “more than make up” the difference between the figure the working group considered in 2021, and the larger figure he recommended at this meeting.
Council members unanimously agreed the city manager position is one that requires a great deal of commitment, time and effort, and whoever does the job should be compensated correctly. But, in the words of Coyle, members were “shocked” when he broke down how much more the council will need to make available to recruit a candidate capable of effectively running the city, like a CEO.
Alderperson George McGonigal recognized the figure is larger than the council originally wanted to offer the new city manager, but, “it is what it is.”
“If we want a good city manager,” McGonigal said “We’re gonna have to pay the freight.”
Gearhart agreed and said that while “these numbers are big for all of us, all the positions we’ll have to replace in the near future will probably cost us more than they had, and maybe more than we believe they should. But that’s the reality of our organization.”