Fishers’ conversion from town to city brings prickly pay issues to fore

Six candidates ran for mayor of Fishers in the May primary without knowing what the job would pay. More than 20 sought seats on its first City Council.

Now the outgoing Town Council—with at least two members who won’t return to the dais next year—must decide how to compensate the victors come Jan. 1.

Fishers’ upcoming transition from town to second-class city gives the council an unusual opportunity to set the tone for future leadership by establishing the municipal CEO’s salary. The seven-member panel also must decide how much to pay the elected city clerk and nine city councilors.

helmke-paul-mug Helmke

“It’s tricky,” said council President John Weingardt. “We’ve never had [some of] these positions before.”

Although all cities and towns in Indiana evaluate taxpayer-funded compensation annually by adopting a salary ordinance, that process rarely results in much more than standard cost-of-living adjustments—if that.

Take Fishers Town Council: Members earn $12,000 a year, are not eligible for benefits, and haven’t given themselves a raise in more than a decade.

At least three current councilors think the switch from town to city is a good reason to re-evaluate the pay structure, which member Pete Peterson called “the flashing red light in the county” compared with other council salaries.

Carmel City Council makes $16,000 a year, plus benefits, according to data Fishers solicited from other communities. Noblesville Common Council collects about $17,000 and is eligible for city benefits.

In Westfield, city councilors are paid $15,000, with an extra $1,500-per-year stipend for the panel’s president and $1,000 a year for its vice president.

Despite lagging its neighbors, Weingardt said the “will of the council” majority right now is to keep members’ salaries unchanged for next year. The number of council members will grow and their responsibilities will shift as Fishers’ mayor takes over executive duties, he said.

“We’re still working through it all,” said Weingardt, one of two sitting councilors facing opposition in the election next month. “We want to see how this goes, see how the budget plays out, before we start thinking about changing compensation.”

But they still have to decide what to pay the new positions. Weingardt said negotiations will remain under wraps until the salary ordinance is publicly introduced in November. Last year, the council waited until December to pass the compensation measure.

The mayor’s pay likely will be “aligned” with Town Manager Scott Fadness’ current $140,000-a-year salary, Weingardt said, but no decisions have been finalized.

Fadness, who has run Fishers’ day-to-day affairs on the council’s behalf since 2011, won the Republican primary and is the only mayoral candidate on the November ballot. He has made it a point to stay out of the council’s compensation talks.

“It’s a politically dangerous topic,” acknowledged Paul Helmke, a three-term Fort Wayne mayor now serving as professor of practice at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Helmke recalls being drafted in the early 1980s to participate in an independent, bipartisan commission that reviewed the Fort Wayne mayor’s compensation—years before he contemplated a run.

The panel included representatives from the public and private sectors, including some with human resources and legal expertise. They looked at salaries from comparable cities, reviewed the range of responsibilities, and recommended that the Fort Wayne City Council nearly double the mayor’s pay.

fishers-table.gifAfter taking office in 1988, Helmke regularly reviewed city compensation to make sure it stayed in line with other governmental agencies and the professional marketplace.

“Being mayor, especially in a second-class city, is a full-time job,” he said. “You’re on call 24/7. You manage a significant budget and a significant number of employees. … If you also have to worry about how to pay the bills and keep your kids clothed and fed, it scares people off.”

Indeed, communities with a weak-mayor form of government often pay the professional managers brought in to run day-to-day affairs several times more than central Indiana mayors make today, Helmke said.

“You don’t want to discourage good people from going after the job,” he said.

Zionsville’s Town Council already has adjusted the starting salary for the Boone County community’s first elected mayor—and voters haven’t even weighed in on the town’s proposed consolidation with neighboring Perry Township.

If the courts allow Zionsville’s ballot question and residents approve the change, an interim mayor would be selected from the sitting Town Council and paid the princely sum of $10,000—matching the council president’s salary (which is twice as much as the rest of the panel).

In 2016, when the voters’ choice for mayor takes over, the pay would jump to $120,000, said council President Jeff Papa. That’s up from the original proposal of about $90,000 a year, which several council members thought was too low.

“There was a lot of debate about where the number should be to start with,” he said, since salaries are “difficult to move once put in place.”

Like Fishers, Zionsville reviewed compensation in nearby communities as part of its salary-setting process.

“The whole idea [behind the reorganization] is to get a full-time person” into the Mayor’s Office, Papa said. “If the salary is too low, it will only attract candidates who are independently wealthy or retired. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, but that limits the pool of candidates.”

Noblesville, which is adding two councilors and splitting the clerk-treasurer’s duties between an elected clerk and appointed controller as part of its 2016 shift from third- to second-class-city status, is still reviewing the potential impact on salaries, said council President Mark Boice. The council went through a benchmarking process last year, increasing some pay to stay competitive.

“I think it’s vital … to attract the talent we want,” he said.

Matt Greller, executive director of the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, said there’s little doubt municipal managers are destined to be paid less than their private-sector counterparts.

But by narrowing the gap, he said, communities might be able to attract more high-quality candidates with a penchant for public service.

“Building quality communities is about attracting and retaining talent,” he said, and cities and towns that compensate their leaders well are “leading by example.”•

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