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Raises for city’s white-collar union should not affect pay of political appointees

That the raise negotiated by Buffalo’s white-collar union triggered the same 8.2 percent raise for most non-unionized political appointees cries out for an amendment to the City Charter.

Those automatic raises help explain why six mayoral appointees now make more than the city’s chief executive and others have hit the $100,000-per-year level. The salaries for police and fire commissioner were not affected by the contract vote, meaning they are no longer the city’s highest-paid employees.

The salary linkage is even more disturbing because hundreds of city appointees now have a vested interest, and probably a secret longing, in having the union extract all the money it can from city taxpayers.

The political appointees, like the union members, get an immediate 8.2 percent raise, stemming from annual 2 percent pay increases going back to 2011. The contract calls for an additional 3 percent raise at the end of July, and then three more years of 2 percent pay increases. Because they start out with heftier paychecks than most of the union members, the total increase of more than 17 percent adds up to a lot of dollars.

Why shouldn’t the mayor and his team be responsible for the raises – or lack thereof, in some cases – of the mayor’s own political appointees?

We are not saying those employees don’t deserve a raise. However, that raise should be earned by performance, not handed out because a union they don’t belong to gets a raise.

Case in point, the scads of money Parking Commissioner Kevin J. Helfer saved after discovering parking meters were getting ripped off by some of the city’s own workers. Public Works Commissioner Steven J. Stepniak earns his salary and more in just one arctic winter.

And the now highest-paid department head, Finance Commissioner Donna J. Estrich, who got a $10,000 bump to $129,068, probably deserved a raise for her work in keeping city finances under control.

There are other appointees who work equally hard and deserve a raise, and probably some who don’t. In one of the nation’s poorest cities, that’s not the point. The question is whether there is a better way to reward high-ranking appointees of the mayor, along with some appointed by Common Council members.

The mayor presents top-ranking political appointments to the Common Council which, with few exceptions, approves them. The appointees serve at the mayor’s pleasure.

There is no reason for these appointees to get an automatic raise when, in this case, members of Local 650, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, get a bump in pay.

The blame falls on the City Charter, which was amended to link raises for exempt employees to what union workers receive. Even so, it’s sometimes been ignored. According to a 2003 story in The News, “Officials have generally – but not always – followed the policy. There apparently were a couple of instances, at least, where that did not happen.”

The linkage between raises for the city’s unionized white-collar employees and non-unionized political appointees needs to be broken. The mayor and other elected city officials, not the negotiators of union contracts, should be the ones to decide how much their appointees should earn.