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8.2% raises gain approval in City Hall

The calendar said St. Patrick’s Day, but for some in Buffalo City Hall, it felt a bit like Christmas.

When the Common Council on Tuesday approved an eight-year contract for the city’s unionized white-collar employees, the move also triggered a similar raise for most non-unionized political appointees.

Among them are many city department heads who – like the 430 members of Local 650, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who work under them – got an immediate 8.2 percent pay increase. The raise represents four years of 2 percent pay hikes going back to 2011.

The pay increase pushed four more city department heads into the six-figure salary level, and also means that two more city mayoral appointees, for a total of six – including the deputy mayor – earn more than Mayor Byron W. Brown’s salary, which remains at $105,000.

Since the contract calls for an additional 3 percent raise at the end of July, then three more years of 2 percent pay hikes, the number of $100,000-plus department heads making more than the mayor is poised to continue increasing through at least the rest of Brown’s term in December 2017.

The city’s police and fire commissioners, whose paychecks were not affected by Tuesday’s contract vote, have traditionally had the highest base salaries in city government. Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda’s 2014 base pay was $120,522, while Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr.’s was $126,642.

Now, however, the highest-paid department head is Finance Commissioner Donna J. Estrich. The 8.2 percent pay increase brings her annual salary to $129,068 – giving her roughly a $10,000 raise. Whitfield and Derenda now hold the second and third spots, followed by Kenneth M. Barnes, head of management information systems, who is responsible for the City Hall computer system. Barnes now earns $114,835, up from $106,090.

New to the $100,000-plus level as a result of this contract are Corporation Counsel Timothy A. Ball, whose salary is now $107,316, up from $99,143; Deputy Mayor Ellen E. Grant, now earning $105,919, up from $97,853; Parking Commissioner Kevin J. Helfer, now earning $102,831, up from $95,000; and Public Works Commissioner Steven J. Stepniak, whose new salary is $101,637, up from $93,897.

As an elected official, the mayor – along with other elected officials – does not get automatic raises tied to any unionized contracts.

The pay of elected officials is supposed to increase only after a salary review board makes recommendations. Such a board is not currently meeting, and no one in City Hall has suggested that one be asked to review salaries of elected official.

Brown’s mayoral salary of $105,000 ranks seventh behind his appointees, roughly $1,000 behind his deputy mayor.

Similarly, the deputy city comptroller now earns more than the city comptroller.

City Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder earns $88,812. His deputy’s salary is now $96,292, up from $87,215.

The top pay in city government is among unionized employees, mostly police and fire, who – unlike department heads – can accumulate a lot of overtime beyond their base salaries.

The highest earner in 2014 was a police lieutenant who took home $189,000, followed by a fire lieutenant who earned $176,000.

In fact, 361 employees, mostly police and firefighters not affected by the white-collar contract, earned more in 2014 than the mayor.

The white-collar contract included a total raise of 17 percent over eight years.

In return, the union gave up retiree health insurance for new employees. While other government unions, most notably in Erie County, have given up the perk, this Local 650 contract represents the first in City Hall to agree to forgo the benefit. The mayor has said the contract will result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in long-term savings.