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Op-Ed: Covington City Manager Should Retire

The following op-ed is written by Dave Meyer, son of Mayor-elect Joe Meyer, who was active in his father's campaign. He lives in Mainstrasse Village. The opinion expressed here is his own.

The 2016 election was a call for change in Covington City Hall. Voters rejected the lack of professionalism and accountability that have characterized our recent government.

Those weaknesses were on display in the first commission meeting after the election. In a 3-0 vote, with two “present”, the City Commission gave City Manager Larry Klein a significant pay raise.  Regardless of the merits of that decision, that vote illustrates the mismanagement rejected by voters in November.

The raise should have been passed through ordinance, rather than order; the raise’s retroactivity presents troubling budgetary challenges; the raise likely violates Kentucky’s Constitution; and the raise may trigger the Commonwealth’s “anti-spiking” statute, costing the City far more than its paper value. Those problems are typical of the sloppiness and carelessness with which the city has been managed.

Covington has a salary schedule set by city ordinance O-27-13, as required by state statute. The salary schedule sets a maximum salary for a city manager with 7 years of experience at $131,049. To give an employee a raise that exceeds that maximum, the Commission must amend the original ordinance.

The Commission passed O/R-363-16 at its last meeting, raising the City Manager’s annual salary to $144,330.71, retroactive to July 1, 2015, well above the maximum in the salary schedule. The order doesn’t and can’t amend the ordinance; the executive action lacks authority in Covington law.

The retroactivity raises independent issues. First, it’s uncommon practice, wasn’t discussed at the Commission meeting, and appears to have been a surprise to at least some of the Commissioners. The retroactivity produced a lump sum payment of around $20,000 to the City Manager.

Second, July 1, 2015 extends back to the beginning of the previous fiscal year. Cities are not permitted by Kentucky law to spend money outside of the parameters of their budget. The retroactive raise appears to have increased the City Manager’s line item in the FY 2015-2016 budget, which has been closed out for months. 

 

Third, the payment of a salary adjustment for prior service - retroactive pay - is generally considered a bonus and is not allowable under Section 3 of the Kentucky Constitution. Section 3 prohibits the use of public money for anything but public service; this has been interpreted to mean future public service. Increasing compensation for past service is not permitted in Kentucky. 

 

Finally, the raise may expose Covington to penalties under the state’s anti-spiking law. If a local government increases a public salary more than 10% within five years of an employee’s retirement, the local government must pay the actuarial cost of the raise into the pension system up front. If the retroactive portion of the City Manager’s raise is factored into his 2016-2017 salary for pension calculation, the raise will far exceed 10%. Covington may be forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars into the pension system upon the City Manager’s retirement. 

 

If a raise isn’t authorized by law, it’s illegal and the city has an affirmative duty to recover the public money. 

 

This issue points to a larger cultural problem inside City Hall, a seeming misunderstanding of how a city manager government operates.  The city manager is an administrative officer, with no executive authority except for that which is specifically delegated by ordinance. Executive and legislative authorities are retained by the commission.

The next city commission needs to assert its authority and make it abundantly clear that the city manager works for the city commission, not vice versa. Our unelected city manager has far too much control in the current government, exercising a stranglehold on information, controlling the agenda, establishing strategic priorities, and frankly leading the commission down a primrose path.

With this imbalance in City Hall, it’s not hard to understand why there is so little accountability, regard for the rules, or even regard for the law. It’s also not difficult to guess why the sloppiness consistently seems to work in the city manager’s favor.

If the city manager wants a raise, there is no check on his authority. If the city manager wants to spend public resources to pursue a political agenda, there is no check on his authority. If the city manager wants to pursue a personal agenda against a single commissioner, there is no check on his authority.  And if the city manager wants to decide spending priorities, there is no check on his authority.

The next four years can’t be wasted retraining a recalcitrant city manager on the proper role of his position.  The city manager should retire, collect his $95,000 annual pension, and allow Covington to move forward. It’s what Covington voted for.

Written by Dave Meyer

Photo: Covington City Hall (RCN file)