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Pay Liaise: $50K Too Much or Too Little?

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Just in time for this year's budget battle, City Council faces a delicate money question that threatens to trigger friendly fire: How much should their staffers get paid?

Each member of council has one full-time aide, or council liaison. A 2005 ordinance states that each liaison should receive a starting annual salary of $50,000, but it hasn't been uniformly interpreted by all council members. Some read it as a hard and fast starting point and figure the schedule for raises is a uniform cost-of-living adjustment. But language in the ordinance also leaves those positions open to human-resources policies set by the administration.

The result is a salary disparity no one intended to create.

First District Councilman Bruce Tyler negotiated a salary of $36,662 for Jennifer Walle, a 23-year-old Christopher Newport University graduate. It's within the range that the HR department outlines, but may be at odds with what the ordinance prescribes.

"If I underpaid my staff member compared to what the ordinance said," he says, "I'd rather do that than [overpay]."

Tyler says he was unaware of the ordinance when he hired Walle, and when he found out about it, he proposed to the Government Operations Committee that it establish a merit-based pay system with bonuses for additional education and experience.

On the other end of the spectrum, 5th District Councilman Marty Jewell requested a 10 percent raise for his liaison, Francine Young, a 28-year city employee, bringing her salary to $58,577. Under standard HR procedures, an increase at that level did not need approval from the rest of council. Other members of council, however, haven't considered that a pay option in the past.

"I believe we're working between two sets of guidelines and there needs to be clarity," says Daisy Weaver, council chief of staff.

Jewell says the administration's HR department's more flexible guidelines should be upheld. "They're not called liaisons for no reason," Jewell says. "They're called liaisons because they're on loan from the administration to the council members."

Whatever the new policy may be, City Council President Bill Pantele says the process is flawed.

"I don't think that any rule was broken, but I think that internally I'm very disappointed that council officers were not made aware of this," Pantele says. "I think that it exacerbates the problems of this pay differential and certainly causes some personnel strife that we meant to avoid."



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