A recent string of raises for several City of Nogales employees has caused conflict between council members and city staff, with some council members recently voting against requested raises and others saying they will vote down future requests.
In the five months since the council passed the 2020 budget, seven employees have seen their pay increase following orders passed by the council.
Even as they acknowledged that the moves could look like favoritism, council members have asserted that their hands are tied and blame the issue on old promises and errors made by other city employees.
“I don’t believe in what we’re about to do,” Mayor Arturo Garino said before voting to authorize a salary adjustment for two sanitation department employees on Nov. 13.
The salary increases come after a compensation study revealed that nine out of every 10 city workers earn less than their peers at nearby local governments. However, the council-ordered raises haven’t sought to systematically address those gaps.
Instead, most have been the result of employees claiming that they were promised a raise by a supervisor or former city employee.
That’s how the sanitation workers got their raise and it’s also the rationale used by Nogales Police Chief Roy Bermudez to explain a Dec. 4 measure that resulted in a raise for two police dispatchers.
“It was a prior city manager and a prior human resource director. It was done arbitrarily against my advice,” said Bermudez, who had his own salary raised by $6,500 to $98,000 at the start of fiscal year 2020.
Garino and Councilwoman Esther Melendez-Lopez were the only two council members to vote against the move that raised the salaries of the dispatchers last Wednesday.
“Tomorrow, if this passes, there’ll be somebody at public works, (to) raise their hand and say ‘(a city employee) promised me that I was supposed to get a raise,’” Garino said.
'These things have to stop with you now'
The raises were authorized at council meetings on Aug. 7, Sept. 10, Nov. 13 and Dec. 4.
Some employees have received salary adjustments for other reasons, including raises following promotions, like that given to City Attorney Mike Massee after his promotion from the deputy city attorney job.
But it’s the council-ordered raises for employees whose roles aren’t changing that have divided elected officials in recent months.
John Kissinger, who is currently receiving a higher pay rate while he serves as acting city manager, also negotiated a raise for himself effective upon his return to his permanent role as deputy city manager.
Kissinger justified his deputy position raise at the council’s Aug. 7 meeting by pointing to Bermudez’s new salary and suggesting that, as the police chief’s supervisor, he should be earning more. Kissinger had been earning $97,856 – $144 less than Bermudez’s new salary – and asked for a bump to $104,826.
At that point, Councilman Marcelino Varona, Jr. questioned whether the move was fair to the city’s lower-paid employees who weren’t getting an increase, asking: “What happens to those people because they don’t have a voice here?”
Kissinger ultimately got the raise.
For other employees, Kissinger suggested that raises could have been doled out without council approval.
“In the past, there wasn’t a request of mayor and council to change the salaries and amend the budget,” he told the council on Dec. 4.
He said he’d been bringing the increases before the council because current council members had said they didn’t want the city manager to make salary adjustments without council approval.
At a Sept. 10 meeting, the council rubber-stamped a pay increase for a police officer after Bermudez said the officer had been paid a lower rate than they were due because of an “oversight.”
On Nov. 13, the raises for two sanitation employees were on the agenda. Kissinger said that the employees had been promised a raise by a former supervisor at the Public Works Department, and council discussion suggested the raises were for approximately $8,000.
That drew some criticism from other city workers.
“I got employees that called me that are upset about this” Varona said at the time. “It’s being misinterpreted by the workers, like if the ‘favorites’ are getting a salary increase, and why are they getting a salary increase and we’re not getting a salary increase?”
Garino told Kissinger at that meeting that “this is the last two” raises he would support, and the council passed the measure without any opposition.
Then, on Dec. 4, the council saw two more pay-related requests, one for Human Resources Director Carmen Fuentes and another move that would give a raise to the two NPD dispatchers.
Documents show that Former City Manager Frank Felix had previously told Fuentes she would get a raise if she earned a bachelor’s degree. Bermudez’s statements to the council suggested that the dispatchers also believed they were entitled to a raise, though Bermudez claimed he had nothing to do with it.
“Again, it was against my will,” he said.
Massee, the city attorney, told the council that the city could land itself in legal trouble if it rejected the $8,076 raise for Fuentes, who earned a B.A. from Capella University in September.
Garino and Councilwoman Esther Melendez-Lopez voted against both measures.
“These people should wait until the next budget, or until we start working on the compensation report,” the mayor said of the police dispatchers, and added that Felix had not notified any other city officials about the raise he’d promised to Fuentes.
Varona joined the four other council members in supporting the Dec. 4 raises, citing consistency with his Nov. 13 vote, but said that he’d had enough.
“I don’t like that we’re making adjustments, but, legally, the city manager did bind us,” he said of the raise for Fuentes.
Addressing Kissinger, he added: “These things have to stop with you now. I don’t want to be put any more in this position.”
Leaving last Wednesday’s meeting, Varona and Councilman Jorge Maldonado both said they wouldn’t vote for a similar increase if it’s presented at a future meeting.
Councilman Nubar Hanessian wasn’t sure, saying: “You have to look at the situation, right?”