With Asheville in a budget crunch, a lot of potential items are on the chopping block. However, the well-compensated upper-echelon staff that crafted the menu of cuts that City Council’s choosing from left out one item worthy of serious discussion: the upper echelons of city staff taking a pay cut.
Continuing a staff pay freeze and eliminating 10 full and 12-14 part-time positions are part of the budget discussions, along with cuts to transit, shifting to a four-day work week and raising the business-license fee. Council has tentatively agreed to measures that make up $4 million of a $5 million gap for the next fiscal year but has found little consensus on strategies for closing that last million.
Salaries are the elephant in the room in all these discussions, as the city spends more than half its budget on its employees. One of the striking things about the recent flexible-spending benefits scandal in the city’s Human Resources Department wasn’t just the accusations of malfeasance but the high salaries paid to those accused. It’s not just them, either. Documents released by the city reveal that the department also shells out $62,400 for an executive recruiter, $55,000 for an employee-relations manager and $80,000 for a health-and-wellness manager.
So the next time Council takes up the budget, perhaps staff should bring the following proposal for discussion: a 5 to 7 percent salary cut for all employees making more than $50,000 a year. Certainly, there’s some room for tinkering there — perhaps the threshold should be bumped up to $60,000 — but it’s worth considering. Many private businesses concerned with avoiding employee layoffs have adopted similar measures to meet the challenges posed by the ongoing economic downturn.
Some preliminary math shows that the savings could be considerable. Taking the salaries of City Manager Gary Jackson and Asheville’s 11 department heads (all of whom, except Fire Chief Scott Burnette, clear six figures), a 5 percent cut just in those jobs would save $71,046, and a 7 percent cut would whittle $99,462 from the deficit. These figures aren’t perfect, as they include the salaries of departing Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant and resigned Human Resources Director Lisa Roth, but the 7 percent cut would still provide more savings than the proposed four-day work week.
And if city staff looked closely enough at their own ranks, perhaps some highly paid positions could even be eliminated, resulting in extensive further savings.
The salary cuts, if made, could be temporary — when the city’s booming again, the old salary level could be restored, perhaps with a nice raise for the staffers who stuck around through the tough times.
In the meantime, seeing a parade of well-heeled department heads (many of whom are, admittedly, quite talented and dedicated) proposing cuts to transit and services used by low-income workers but not broaching the subject of their own paychecks may raise more than a few eyebrows. Plenty of upper-echelon staff no doubt face their own financial challenges, but I’d venture to guess that none of them would end up on the bread line after such a cut.
A cut for staff whose salaries are more than $20,000 above the median income for this area might also send this message: Asheville’s upper-level employees are willing to make sacrifices when times are tight, instead of simply shifting the burden to those who are already struggling with service cuts. It could signal to hard-hit residents, who live in a place where unemployment just topped 10 percent and the poverty rate was 20 percent before the recession hit — that those in charge of the day-to-day management of their tax dollars are willing to tighten their own belts.
Perhaps it won’t work; perhaps there’s a better way to balance the budget. But Council members seem to have already ruled out a tax increase, and they can’t agree on enough cuts to make up the shortfall. If Asheville wants to maintain the level of services it has promised, something’s got to give.
P.S. It’s worth noting that Citizen-Times reporter John Boyle recently offered some detailed analysis on city salaries.