Municipal Managers. Do You Get What You Pay For?

People employed in the public sector have to put up with a lot because they are always under the scrutiny of the taxpayers. Taxpayers pay the salary of public employees like a borough manager, main street manager or any number of full time officials administering departments and crews.

I watched with a little bit of amusement recent developments in Pottstown about the salary range for the prospective new borough manager. The question is “Do You Get What You Pay For”??

The answer from my perspective is that yes you do. There is the chance that you make a mistake and misinterpret someone’s credentials or simply choose the wrong person. If the wrong person is selected, at least you did bring qualified candidates to the table and chose not to accept them. 

When I was younger, I changed jobs every year or two even if I did not have to change.  I wanted to do different things and go to different places. I did not care about the salary I cared about the challenge. I took a $25,000 cut in pay to take the Phoenixville Main Street position. The fact that I had a settlement from the South Street Headhouse district had a lot to do with my decision. I could have pocketed the extra dough and took a job of equal pay. 

I chose Phoenixville because of the challenge, and I knew I would have them swimming in cash in no time and my salary could be adjusted. Later my time in Phoenixville was well compensated as they appreciated what I did and tried not to lose me to another town. They felt that my presence in downtown was beneficial.

Most people are not like me and seek the security of a long-term position and seek a salary that will enable them and their family to live decently. I see a lot of ads and I think about who is going to apply. I get a chuckle out of some of the salaries that are offered, particularly for Main Street positions. In Main Street you put all your best people forward to form a board, and place all you hopes and dreams for your downtown in the hands of the paid professional. Then when it comes time to hire the professional, the amount paid is not near the going rate. The program fails or the manager decides to go to grad school so they can make some real money and all the hopes… and all the dreams take a fall and will be brought up again in ten years.

Pottstown has been through a few borough managers. According to my memory they last two or three years. Now a consultant comes in and tells Pottstown Council they need to pay more to stay competitive. $110,000 to $130,000 is a lot of money. It is more money than the City of Coatesville was willing to pay. When I applied for that job I was willing to take a $20,000 cut. I asked $120,000 and that was too much. They eventually hired someone for $95,000 and he was fired one year later. Did they get what they paid for? I do not know. Would I have done better at $25,000 more? Not sure. It could have been me being fired I suppose.

A salary of $110,000 - $130,000 seems in line when you want to bring a higher caliber person to the table. It may not be in line with the populous that makes less than that per annum. Comments like “what does he manage?” posted under newspaper articles show a total lack of understanding of the complexities of municipal management. Towns that hire talented people do better than towns that hire people who have little or no talent.

In one of my management positions, I was in a situation where I had a great borough manager who quit, citing integrity issues. Then I had… in my professional opinion… a less than stellar borough manager who set back the borough as many years as the first one had pushed it forward. Then I had a so-so manager who went through the motions to consolidate power and failed to execute. All of these people made approximately the same amount of money.

Therefore, it leads me back to the question that is before us. Do you get what you pay for or is this a big waste of money and time? The answer is that it will depend on the qualities and traits that they seek in a manager and whether or not it is a good fit with the Borough. By offering more money, they will have presented to themselves with an array of candidates that can do the job. Each of the candidates will need a “price,” but it will depend upon whether or not he or she wants to undertake the challenge and do it for less money than they could normally make. I know I would take a cut to work in Coatesville but could not entertain that in Pottstown because it is not bad enough to warrant that kind of challenge (it is not calling my name). That place can be revitalized in a heartbeat if they had a leader.

Could you get a manager for less and have them be successful? Depends on the person, but I believe you will do better with a wider array of candidates to expand the choices.  There is no rule that you have to award the high end of the salary scale. Maybe someone will recognize that Pottstown is the challenge that they have been waiting for, and do it for less.

My conclusion is that the consultant hired to do the search knows what he is talking about, and borough council should listen to him. The amount stated by no means is an inordinate sum and could mean good things happening for years to come.