City: Need a Raise? Make Your Own Case; Job Surveys Could Result in Pay Hikes, Though Some Already Got Raises

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Byline: STEVE PATTERSON

While some Jacksonville businesses are cutting wages in hard times, Jacksonville City Hall could end up raising salaries for some workers by fall.

This after the city already gave hefty raises - many in double-digits, one more than 40 percent - to three dozen workers in the past few months.

About 450 mid- and upper-level managers and other non-union workers were told last month to fill out surveys describing their jobs. Now a consultant is using those to help decide whether pay for city workers is on par with similar jobs in Northeast Florida. Competitive pay was one reason the city boosted 36 employees' pay this year.

A finding that some salaries are too low could open the door to pay hikes when the city's budget year starts Oct. 1. But that would happen just as City Hall is scraping for ways to handle falling tax revenue and rising social costs of the country's recession.

The timing makes the idea ripe for criticism.

"I can't believe that in the current economic crisis we're experiencing ... I can't believe that anyone is looking at salary surveys," said Nicholas Dix, regional director of the country's major union for public employees.

"Especially when we're being told all the time that there is no money, and there's no money for overtime," Dix added.

His members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in city government aren't part of the review. The union negotiated a 1.75 percent raise with the city last month but hasn't yet ratified it.

The survey's timing is actually set by a city ordinance requiring a review every four years, said Chad Poppell, the city's human resources chief. The first one was done in 2005. He said the review also could lead to some people being moved to lower pay grades - but in that case people might just have their pay frozen until inflation catches up with their earnings.

Even if it weren't required, city staffers say it's good business to ensure wages match the market.

"We work to ensure that people in this city are paid fairly," said Misty Skipper, a spokeswoman for Mayor John Peyton. Underpaying people encourages them to take other jobs as soon as they have the experience to get hired elsewhere, she said.

The last review ended with just six people getting raises, totaling less than $10,000 between them, Skipper said.

The review will cover a relatively small sliver of the 8,000 people on the city payroll, but it includes many people in senior jobs in their agencies, who also get the top pay.

But deciding what's fair payment has been a challenge in the city at many levels of the job ladder.

In the past few months, 37 city employees have received special pay raises because their bosses - and city personnel staff - concluded they were being short-changed.

One of the largest beneficiaries was a crew of call-service employees whose income increased by as much as one-fifth, to about $25,000 annually. The city has historically had trouble keeping employees with similar experience when credit card companies and others doing back-office work in Jacksonville would offer more.

Pay for the fire department's main spokesman, Tom Francis, rose more than 40 percent, to $75,000 yearly, after a similar review that compared pay for other city information officers and private sector public relations people.

Dozens of other raise requests are on file, awaiting decisions by city personnel staff.

"With the [city's] financial status, we're not really encouraging them," Poppell said.

A lot of governments and big companies have used a similar but broader review, called a desk audit, to rethink the purpose and value of every job, said Patrick Plumlee, director of the University of North Florida's master's program in public administration.

Newer technology has changed so many jobs that if a city hasn't reviewed them in a decade or more, "it's really not going to reflect what people are doing today," he said. …