Our Pauper Mayor and His Court: Proposed Salary Raises Questions, Brings Attention to Lingering Issues

by Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage

The sun has been shining; the weather, hot. Summer is summer and men in power are doing what men in power do. Things are making sense these days in the City of Utica.

As it happens, an introductory local law in the Common Council’s Finance Committee, as reported by the Observer-Dispatch, could point to some substantial pay raises for a couple of persons among the esteemed panjandrum of the city.

The law, sponsored by D-5 Councilman Bill Phillips, proposes that Utica’s mayor and comptroller, Robert Palmieri and Bill Morehouse respectively, ought to have pay raises based on the sound reasoning that other mayors make more, and that public officials ought to be able to earn a living.

As noted in the report by the Observer-Dispatch, Jacqueline Izzo, mayor of nearby Rome, makes $84,671 administering over a city of 32,000 people while Gary McCarthy in Schenectady makes a cool $96,700.

Meanwhile, Mayor Robert Palmieri, presiding over a population of 62,000, only makes $77,015. These figures are taken from the 2015 Conference of Mayors, where all the other mayors apparently made fun of Utica.

For Comptroller Morehouse, his salary of $65,806 would be increased to $78,000.

“Overall, I think we’re paying too low salaries in the city and we’re losing great people,” says Bill Phillips, who represents the city’s poorest and most segregated district of Cornhill. He would add, “People want to make a decent living.”

A fine sentiment, but let’s examine the evidence first.

As it is, Palmieri’s salary in the context of other mayors seems low, but the proposed law would increase the salary to $98,000.

Meanwhile, the median income in Utica is $31,000. For added context, the median income in the United States is $51,800.

Councilman Phillips’s argument that the mayor has to make nearly twice the median amount for the country, and over three times that of the city, to “make a decent living” is selling the issue a bit high.

Palmieri added that the salaries of other department heads in the city government should be looked at for possible raises, too, but Utica didn’t lose over a third of its population in the last four decades because the city isn’t paying its elected officials enough money. Economic trends setting courses for the lands of lower wages and less union presence encouraged part of that diaspora; brain-drain another. Sadly, Utica, boasting a 16 percent college education rate, can be a challenging place if you have a college degree in many fields outside of a handful which find ample opportunity here like nursing, business and marketing. Acceptable runners-up being education, sociology and criminal justice.

Perusing job websites for area positions requiring an undergraduate education typically yields similar results: non-profit administration, substance abuse counseling and the “Teach English in China” programs which ubiquitously appear in all job searches.

Paying our public officials is simply not the problem. For some, it’s the lack of opportunity for those who find themselves unable to fit into Utica’s long-contracted economy. For others, it’s the low-wage, low-skill, high-turnover McJobs that simply do not pay enough. There’s always the chance that I’ve perhaps applied Councilman Phillips’s comments too acutely and he did mean that the area on the whole is lacking, but unless we’re having trouble attracting people to run for office or apply to city jobs, which isn’t the case, this is a poor argument.

Much of the fanfare around the “growth” of recent years centers around small businesses which also pay small business wages. While the argument that relief might be on its way via New York State’s minimum wage raise, the timeline of the increase may subvert the intended positive effects as inflation isn’t going to stop.

Worse, the prospect of raises for the mayor and comptroller adds to an increasing perception that the “revitalization” of the city exposes the out-of-touch sentiment held among those residents who don’t live in neighborhoods targeted for trendy utilization and safe investment: Cornhill and West Utica.

Putting aside white savior activities like TEDx, which weeds out local grassroots organizations from its annual presentations, and feel-good refugee stories, there’s been a dark side to revitalization.

The Greater Utica Chamber of Commerce, in March, issued a public statement that it opposed the minimum wage increase throughout the state. While they can’t do anything about the increase itself, this translates directly into an issue affecting Utica the quality of life of the many who do struggle to get by here. Due to endorsements from the Working Families Party and CNY Citizens In Action, it’s assumed that the mayor himself supports living wages, but this is still troubling for the city.

Fun stat: the Utica City School District has a 45 percent poverty rate, and the CoC felt it wise to decree that workers, many of them parents, don’t deserve better.

Lana Nitti’s research into lead poisoning exposed extremely high levels of contamination throughout sites located in the city’s poorest neighborhoods that the DEC has known about for at least a decade. One has to ask the question of whether or not the city would have bothered to address the issue otherwise, and even the urgency with which the issue has been met with is questionable.

The plans to develop the parcel of land adjacent from the Utica Memorial Auditorium into a market-rate housing complex come with the classist admonishment to “protect” the area from turning back into a location for affordable housing, as per the comments of Councilwoman Samantha Colosimo-Testa. That land is also heavily leaded. Oops.

Even mild-mannered Made In Utica has gotten in on the action, calling out city residents for being “lazy” on their blog after its author noticed the lack of enthusiasm among friends for a slightly-above-minimum-wage part-time job for a local business. Unmentioned, and at best unnoticed, however, were the barriers to said job, including both drug and criminal background checks. Barriers not unnoticed, though, by the Civil Rights Bureau Chief of the New York State Attorney General’s Office, Lourdes Rosado, when she visited Utica last week and noted the lack of a ‘Ban the Box’ resolution enacted within the city. That’s right. Criminal background checks are a contested civil rights issue.

For a city that wants to brag about how open for business it is when it comes to Downtown, Bagg’s Square and the Brewery District, there’s still the aggrieved case of the Cornhill Fish and Game Club, which was the recipient of neither hip marketing efforts, nor confidence from the city government following a series of shootings that occurred outside of the building in December and January. One of the shootings, which proved fatal, occurred in the parking lot on a day that the club was closed. Still, the club’s members had been complying with several city-instituted measures to mitigate any possible crime and yet still suffered the costs of litigation and eventually closed for a month in March. Maybe if they had loft apartments to offer they could have caught a break?

Deeper into the issue of the pay raises, still, is the fact that the origin of the money for these salary increases for the mayor and comptroller hasn’t been determined at this time, but it might come from trimming the budget in other places.

In a city that doesn’t allot for the drinking fountains in the majority of its public parks to function, or be replaced (seriously, we did the digging on this), there will be money taken from other places in order to provide over $33,000 in salary raises — which is a salary in and of itself, and slightly above the median for Utica.

The last treat in the report were the comments of the mayor suggesting that the public not view the increases as such going toward himself or Comptroller Morehouse personally, but rather to the “positions” of “mayor” and “comptroller”. Cue the dogwhistle.

Does the mayor, who paid for his children to go to Catholic school, deserve a $21,000 pay raise in the pursuit of making a decent living? While Robert Palmieri is more public than mayors in the past, does the office itself deserve that sort of reward? Even if we argue that Mayor Palmieri is worth it, who’s to say that the next mayor should make over three times the salary of the average Utican? Or that any elected officials deserve pay raises?

This does nothing to dispel the notion that there’s a growing cohort of Uticans, in the public and private sectors, looking to pat themselves on the back over revitalization efforts applied surgically to very specific areas of the city. That people with money have a few new places to spend it isn’t convincing enough evidence to prove that Utica is doing better on the whole.

Salaries of $77,015 and $65,806 can buy you a pretty decent life around here. If you’re making twice the salary of an average Utican, there’s no argument to be made for wanting to make a decent living. You already do.

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