Yonkers City Council Raises Eyebrows by Giving Raises to Itself and Mayor
By MAREK FUCHS – JAN. 1, 2004
Just weeks after the city school district narrowly averted 500 layoffs and the elimination of athletic and extracurricular activities, city officials here have voted themselves a batch of double-digit pay raises.
In a meeting convened late Tuesday afternoon during the quiet holiday season, City Council members voted to raise their own salaries as much as 22.6 percent and the mayor’s salary by 17 percent, to $156,100.
”It was chutzpah and hubris,” said Councilwoman Dee R. Barbato, the chairwoman of the council’s budget committee, who voted against the raises. ”You want to give someone a raise? Fine. But do it when you are solvent.”
Symra Brandon, the Democratic minority leader on the Council, who also voted against the raises, agreed. ”We’re talking about bailing the schools out,” she said. ”And the next day we’re talking about pay raises? It’s not very clear how this happened. It looks really strange.”
The schools’ latest round of financial troubles began when the Yonkers Board of Education voted in July to enter the school year fully staffed, despite a shortfall of about $20 million.
Many thought the decision was made under political pressure that would delay the day of reckoning until after the mayoral election.
The city’s mayor, John Spencer, a Republican, could not run for re-election because of term limits but supported his deputy mayor, Phil Amicone, in the November race.
Soon after Mr. Amicone won, the layoffs and cutbacks were announced, with Mr. Spencer’s administration blaming New York State for the school’s trouble, the state blaming city mismanagement and both blaming the school district’s financial controls.
In an 11th-hour agreement, the cutbacks and layoffs were called off, though the source of the funds that bridged the approximate $20 million gap appears less than firm. It includes $8.5 million in state advances, $5 million in borrowing and $7.5 million from still undetermined sources.
Though many, like Richard L. Brodsky, a Democratic assemblyman from Westchester, called the agreement irresponsible, Mr. Spencer said he was not troubled. Within days, Mr. Spencer decided to give $1.1 million in retroactive raises to more than 100 commissioners and senior staff members.
Mr. Amicone, who was to be sworn in on New Year’s Day, collected more than $44,000 in unused vacation and sick time, as well as an extra $8,000 in salary.
Gordon A. Burrows, a Republican councilman, said part of the justification for his vote to increase the mayor’s salary had been that Mr. Spencer’s raises for his commissioners meant that some of them were making more than the mayor.
”My logic is that the mayor should be the highest paid in the city,” Mr. Burrows said. The raise for the City Council, he added, ”was a travesty. I don’t think it’s going to fly very well with the public and I hope they remember it come election time.” Mr. Burrows, the majority leader, ended his term of office last night as the year ended.
The raises for the mayor and City Council, first reported Wednesday in The Journal News of White Plains, were voted on separately, with the mayor’s passing 5 to 2, and the Council’s 4 to 3.
The City Council president will now make $65,543, an increase of 22.6 percent, while the majority and minority leaders will make $41,695, a 17 percent raise.
Other City Council members will also get an increase of 17 percent, to $37,905, but in Mrs. Brandon’s view all of the raises are far too much. ”It’s not warranted for a part-time job,” she said. ”We’re here once a week.”
Mrs. Brandon works full time as an assistant to Andrew J. Spano, the county executive, who would not comment on the raises. But Michael Spano, a state assemblyman from Yonkers who lost in the primaries to Mr. Amicone, and is not related to the county executive, said that the increases could complicate his negotiations with the state for more school financing.
Assemblyman Spano said, ”It makes it more difficult in Albany when other legislators see that there is city administration that continues to feed the municipal side.”
After numerous calls to the mayor’s office, Richard Halevy, a spokesman for the mayor, said he could not locate Mr. Spencer.
Mr. Amicone, Mr. Halevy said, was also not available, but he issued at statement through Mr. Halevy. It said, ”The City Council deliberated on two issues of raises and made their decision. I would have lived with whatever decision they made.”
None of the council members who voted for both raises returned repeated phone calls.
Rachel Leon, the executive director of Common Cause New York, criticized both the size of the raises and the way they were approved.
”The raises themselves are above what most will or won’t be getting this year, if they have jobs,” she said, ”but we also don’t like to see this sort of thing done at the end of the year. It should be done publicly, with a lot of debate and sunshine.”
There was similar sentiment on the streets of Yonkers on Wednesday.
”I don’t know where it came from. It was so abrupt,” said Bob Fane, a 59-year-old Yonkers resident, waiting for a train at the Greystone station. ”And it seems so odd, coming right after such school difficulties.”
As troubled as he was over the scope of the increases, Mr. Fane was equally troubled by their timing. ”Usually, during the holidays, there is a certain period of non-activity.”