Saturday, March 24, 2018

Rick vs. Rick: Which St. Petersburg mayor paid the highest salaries at City Hall?

ST. PETERSBURG — When he announced his bid to return to the mayor's office, Rick Baker bashed incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman for his pricey hiring decisions.

"Rick Baker never had a spokesman when he was mayor," Baker said when he announced his candidacy May 9 on the steps of City Hall. "Maybe because I didn't have $125,000 to throw away."

The former mayor was referring to Kriseman's hiring of a mayoral spokesman, Ben Kirby.

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Baker then singled out Kriseman's chief of staff, Kevin King, who has been criticized by city council members for using heavy-handed tactics to advance the mayor's agenda.

"He has a chief of staff now that I think a lot of people wonder who's running the city sometimes," Baker said to cheers, "a lot of people wonder that."

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Kriseman's campaign has countered that Baker employed several deputy mayors who served together during the Baker years (whereas Kriseman currently has just one deputy.) And they said Baker has unfairly characterized Kriseman's office as bloated.

So, to sum up: The Baker campaign accused Kriseman of stocking his administration with highly-paid staffers. The Kriseman campaign leveled the same charge back at Baker.

Which mayor spent more on high-level salaries?

The Tampa Bay Times decided to find out.

A tale of two administrations

The best way to compare the two administrations, the Baker campaign argued, would be to examine all of the departments in the Kriseman administration.

The newspaper requested data for all non-hourly, management employees who worked for the city since Baker took office in May 2001 through May 2017 and made at least $75,000. Baker served from 2001-2010. Kriseman took office in 2014.

The newspaper then adjusted the salaries over time for inflation using a Department of Labor formula, removing anyone who didn't make at least $75,000 in 2002 dollars (worth just over $100,000 today).

The data showed Baker had more highly paid staffers than Kriseman. However, both mayors steadily added top-paid staff while in office.

The number of top earners peaked under Baker at 95 employees in 2004. It gradually dropped to 86 in a salary year split with his successor, Bill Foster, who served for one term between the Baker and Kriseman administrations.

After a deep dip in those high earners during Foster's administration — he served from 2010-14, during the Great Recession — the trend line is pointing upward again.

Kriseman started with 59 highly-paid employees in 2014, a budget year he also shared with Foster. Now, Kriseman has 81 such workers in his administration.

Anyway you slice it

Looking at highly-paid workers is too narrow a band to get an accurate picture, Baker said.

A better gauge would be to see the overall labor costs, he said, adding that he cut 300 management, supervisory or professional positions during his administration.

"That is, to me, pretty significant," Baker said. "That would be a much more relevant article."

He also said calculating six-figure salaries is an arbitrary exercise.

And Baker took issue with the Times' choice of inflation adjustment calculators, arguing that it would be more precise to use an inflation index specifically designed for wages.

So the Times recalculated the city salaries using Labor Department figures designed to track salary inflation specifically tied to government employees wages.

The numbers changed slightly, but Baker's peak of 95 highly-paid employees remained under that calculations. But the current number of salaries under Kriseman fell slightly to 79.

Too many cooks in the kitchen

Finally, Baker said his criticism of Kriseman's hiring practices was primarily about his choice to add King and Kirby to the payroll. Those staffers insulate the mayor from the community, Baker said.

When he was mayor, Baker said he didn't have either position. He did those jobs himself.

Kriseman said he stands by those decisions. The mayor said King (who makes $120,640 annually) and Kirby ($102,300) allows his administration to be more responsive to residents.

"It works well for me and for my administration," Kriseman said.

The mayor then criticized Baker for falsely attacking his hiring practices.

"He says a lot of things about my record," Kriseman said, "without first examining his record."

Baker countered that Kriseman has added high salaries that aren't considered management positions: He named Director of Education and Community Engagement Leah McRae, Sustainability Manager Sharon Wright and Neighborhood Economic Development Coordinator Shaun Amarnani as examples.

McRae and Wright make just under $75,000 a year. Amarnani makes more, but doesn't supervise anybody.

"I think you can slice this a million different ways," Baker said. "But if you look at total positions added, those add up."

Finally, they agree on something

Both Baker and Kriseman agreed that most of the highly-paid staff are career civil servants who have deep institutional knowledge. They could command high salaries in the private sector.

Their salaries can distort the data, but both agreed they're important to running the city.

"Those numbers ebb and flow," Baker said.

One salary increase isn't in dispute. In late December 2005, during a marathon City Council meeting, council members unanimously approved raising Baker's salary from $113,644 to $150,000 — a 32 percent raise.

Baker said he didn't recommend a raise for himself. A study recommended the pay hike after a long freeze on mayoral salaries.

Kriseman was one of the council members who approved Baker's pay increase. He later voted against a pay raise for himself as a member of city council.

But four other council members approved raising their salaries from $27,000 to $38,000.

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. [email protected]

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