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December 17, 2008

It pays to aide

Why do some Metro Council aides make twice as much as others for the same amount of work?

For weeks Mayor Jerry Abramson has scrambled to fill the city’s $20 million deficit, urging the Metro Council to voluntarily participate in four furlough days to help the city save some much-needed cash. A handful of council members refused, arguing their staffers should not be asked to sacrifice in such tough economic times.

In response, LEO Weekly set out to examine exactly how council members are spending their discretionary funds, a review that revealed, among other things, that the salaries of Metro Council staffers could hardly be more disparate.

While each member of the Metro Council is paid $42,475 annually, the salaries of their legislative aides vary wildly, with the majority falling anywhere from $45,000 to $65,000, not necessarily based on experience.

The highest paid full-time aide is Donna Sanders, the longtime legislative assistant to Councilman George Unseld, D-6, who pulls in a whopping $71,260 a year.

On the other end of the spectrum are a handful of aides who are listed as part-time employees and paid considerably less, despite working schedules similar to their full-time counterparts.

“A lot of times they’re working for free,” admits Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin, D-2, referring to her two part-time legislative aides. In addition to acknowledging both aides work more than the maximum 25 hours a week set for part-time Metro employees, she says only one of her aides receives benefits and neither receives overtime pay, instead taking “comp days” when appropriate.

Shanklin says after her longtime aide resigned earlier this year, she decided to split the position and hire two part-time aides: Gary Bohler, who makes $33,600 a year, and David Riggs, who makes $35,620.

“From day one I knew I would need more help,” says Shanklin. “In my district I have so many complaints and requests, and I needed someone to be out there in the field and someone to be in the office. It’s a lot of work for one person.”

Council members receive a hefty purse of discretionary spending, including: $30,000 for office expenses to pay for items from pencils to furniture to magazine subscriptions; $75,000 in Neighborhood Development Funds to appropriate to nonprofits; and $100,000 to pay for capital improvements like sidewalk repairs and street paving.

In addition, Metro Council’s general budget provides each member $55,000 to compensate a legislative aide, which each councilperson is required by state law to have.

Two years ago the council began allowing members to fluidly transfer money between their discretionary funds, which may explain why some council members pay their legislative aides such high salaries, despite a modest budget for personnel costs.

Council members who pay their aides more than $55,000 must transfer money from discretionary funds to pay the difference. In addition to an aide, some council members hire administrative clerks and other staff assistants, requiring even more funding transfers. Those additional staffers are paid less than $20,000 on average.

Shanklin insists she hasn’t used any money intended for neighborhood projects to pay the salaries of her office staff.

Three other members — Judy Green, D-1, Mary Woolridge, D-3, and Cheri Bryant-Hamilton, D-5 — indicated last week that their staffers might not participate in the furlough days, prompting criticism from some colleagues.

The three Democrats say they need more information, arguing their legislative aides should not be forced into furloughs because they already are under tough financial restraints. (Never mind their generous salaries, like that of Wooldridge’s legislative aide, who earns $64,000, and Hamilton’s aide, who rakes in $61,650.)

The furloughs — scheduled for Dec. 26, Jan. 2, April 3 and May 1 — will likely prevent layoffs and will save the city about $2.9 million, says Kerri Richardson, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jerry Abramson.

“These days were chosen because they tend to be low volume days for city agencies,” Richardson says. “Typically those are days people are off anyway and there’s not a lot of demand for city services.”

Richardson tells LEO Weekly that although legislative aides are Metro employees, the mayor does not control their staff schedules, and if any member of the council decides to exempt their staff from the furloughs, it’s solely their decision. Leading up to the budget cuts, however, the mayor’s team repeatedly pushed all Metro departments to cooperate to help the city weather the economic storm. Even some council members and employees who disagree with the mayor’s furloughs say it’s only fair for legislative aides to follow suit.

“Every office is different,” says Graham Honaker, legislative aide for Councilman Kevin Kramer, R-11. “I don’t think anybody wants to take four furlough days. It can be tough on families.”

Besides managing their councilperson’s schedules, legislative aides serve as proxies at neighborhood meetings and work with the county attorney’s office to craft legislation. Although Honaker disagrees with the furloughs philosophically, he says there’s absolutely no reason aides should be exempt from the unpaid days off, given their high government salaries.

“If 99 percent of the Metro workforce is being asked to take furloughs, I think it’s inexcusable we wouldn’t do that as well,” he says.

Council members have long chided Councilman Glen Stuckel, R-17, for being one of the more frugal with discretionary spending. With half the fiscal year complete, he’s only spent about 15 percent of his budget for office operations.

“My wife might agree with them,” Stuckel says. “I don’t look at it as being cheap. The money I’m spending is not my money. It’s the taxpayer’s money, and I was elected to be a guardian and spend it wisely.”

Stuckel says his legislative aide, Kip Eatherly, is worth his $51,875 salary.

“I have a very efficient legislative assistant,” he says of Eatherly, who previously served as aide to former Jefferson County Judge/Executive Rebecca Jackson. “We field as many calls and e-mails as anyone else, but he just does a great job. My guy comes in at 8 in the morning and leaves at 5 in the evening and he’s working the whole damn time."