Communications manager pay comes into question

Published 12:03 pm Saturday, March 8, 2014

Cain Madden/Managing Editor and Stephen H. Cowles/Staff Writer,

FRANKLIN—The communications manager oversees what City Manager Randy Martin describes as the most important service the city offers – the emergency services.

The pay for the position has recently earned some criticism, as what is currently a part-time employee can earn up to $68,623.36 per year at $41.21 per hour, if all 32 hours are worked each week. The position also receives a monthly stipend of $811 per month, which is the equivalent of what the city would pay in for a health benefits package. Martin said some people like to consider the retirement stipend as part of it, but he said that’s not being paid for by the city. Though the city and the employee did pay in for it while the retiree was working.

The manager is also set to potentially bring in close to $200,000 in grants to help upgrade the town’s communications system.

Bruce Edwards, the communications manager, is a retired city employee. He was formerly the deputy chief for the police department until he retired a few years ago.

This is how he came to be the communications manager.

Last year, the city was made aware that a long-time city employee, the chief dispatcher, would be retiring. This gave the police department and city administration an opportunity to look into the department and position.

Martin said they knew that the department needed upgrades, and last year they added nine EMS positions, which allowed for a second EMS crew, which was moved to the Hunterdale station.

Then the equipment was looked at, which was last upgraded in 1999 after the flood. Recently, the department had to replace the reverse 911 system, as it was no longer working. For 911 itself, Martin said the goal was that if you call it, you 100 percent will get someone.

“We can’t have it down,” he said. “You can’t call and get a busy signal. It is absolutely essential to the operation of the police and fire departments.”

Martin also added that as with the utility service, the EMS service reaches into Southampton County and other nearby communities.

The job of chief dispatcher, which the communications manager was previously, had developed over the years to include more than just supervising the dispatchers. The role had evolved to include managing the equipment and other tasks.

So, before they sought out a candidate, they updated the job description to include those additional tasks and changed the title. The position was now amongst the top of the chain at the police department, below only three positions as far as pay grade.

For someone green who would need training, the pay would be $47,721. For someone with many years of experience and knowledge of the systems, the pay would be $71,580. Each of these figures does not include benefits in them.

This was to better compete with nearby localities. The ceiling in Virginia Beach is $128,814. The range in Suffolk is $51,166 to $81,686. The range in Isle of Wight County is $56,823 to $88,076. In Southampton County, for a chief communications officer, the range is $32,902 to $50,998.

Even with upping the scale, the city only got three applicants. One stood out – Edwards. He had more than 30 years of experience in this line of work, and he had helped the chief dispatcher build the current communications setup, so he needed no training.

As a retiree, he couldn’t work full time, but that also gave the city some benefits, as it did not have to pay retirement.

“It is a pretty good situation,” Martin said. “I have to admit that I was losing sleep over emergency communications in the spring. The system has to efficiently operate 24/7.”

Martin said as the baby boomer generation is reaching retirement, this situation is happening a lot in cities. As knowledge leaves, and the new generation is not producing folks to take over, cities are hiring retirees into similar positions.

So far, working only 32 hours has been adequate.

“If that ever changes, we might have to take another course,” Martin said, adding that there is no contract, the position is at-will. “I will say, that if the person was greener, and did not have the knowledge and experience of the systems, he or she would be working more than 40 hours a week.”

Martin denied that Edwards was making more than some department heads, though he said it could happen if they were to hire a department head with no experience. Based on the pay grade, that could be possible. But all current department heads have a higher pay grade than the communications manager.

Martin said he does not feel like this is a bad investment. If anything was wrong here, he admitted, it was that the previous chief dispatcher was underpaid.

“As an example, we recently gave raises to dispatchers, but this doesn’t help the two that are retiring,” Martin said. “It is a shame, but it is not uncommon in city government.”

Ronald McClenny of Franklin thinks that Edwards is earning too much for his position.

“Ridiculous” is the word he used.

In a copy of his Freedom of Information Act request, McClenny asked Martin for a copy of the contract that he signed and offered to Edwards. That letter states, “this position is an at-will position, not a regular full time position per our adopted Personnel Policies Manual.

This will be part-time hourly position. Your compensation here will be based on an hourly rate of $41.26 per hour not to exceed 32 hours of work per week.”

“The city will contribute $811 per month or $9,732 annually towards your health insurance or other wellness related costs.

“As a part-time hourly employee, you will not accrue sick or annual leave. However, the city will allow you (240) hours of PTA (paid time off) leave per year or the equivalent pursuant to the city policy should the term “PTO” change in the future.

Further, the City of Franklin does follow the state schedule regarding holidays. You will be paid on the holidays that the city does observe annually.”

From that, McClenny said, he figured the following salary breakdown of Edward’s position:

32 hours per week @ $41.26 per hour per year equals $63,375.36

PTO or paid time off per year equals $9,902.40

Insurance benefits @ $811 per month per year equals $9,732

Vacation days – 13 full days and two half-days per year equals 44,621.12

Total: $87,630.88.

“I’ve showed this to several people and they think it’s ridiculous,” said McClenny.

Other questions in the FOIA request included: whether city council was consulted before contract approval; the contract’s expiration date; whether there’s an automatic contract renewal; and how can a person be a contract employee and receive benefits if they’re not city personnel?

“He didn’t respond to the other questions,” said McClenny.

However, Martin did state in his reply that, “A FOIA request provides for public record disclosure. Your request included comments and posed questions that do not specify any particular city record. To the extent specific records were identified, I have enclosed the record in response to your FOIA request.”

Councilman Greg McLemore said he didn’t know of any circumstances that could justify the pay that Edwards is receiving.

“They could have paid him $2,000 a month to be on call,” said McLemore. “My position is why not as a dispatcher consultant?”

He also said the city manager had told him that it would be cheaper to pay Edwards than hire two people.

The money that Edwards is getting is “an abuse of taxpayers’ money,” said McLemore. “In my opinion, it’s blatant proof of mismanagement.”

He’s also concerned that the rest of Franklin City Council seems fine with what Edwards is earning.

“They’ll say it’s a personnel matter,” he added. “They’re walking a fine line with the Virginia Retirement Systems laws that would prevent this from happening.”

Franklin Police Deputy Chief Robert Porti said the argument that Edwards is being paid too much as a part-time employee is a comparison of apples to oranges.

“There’s a new description and qualifications,” Porti said about Edwards’ position, who was hired June 3, 2013.

After Senior Dispatcher Mickey Futrell retired March 1, 2013, the police department “really wanted to make some adjustments of leadership and supervision,” said Porti.

“The position was changed from senior dispatcher to a management-level position that has the responsibilities of drafting policies, procedures, doing budget and training personnel, as well as locating and securing grants.

“Edwards is also assisting information technology not just for that section, but also the whole police department,” Porti continued. “All that is more than was required of the prior positions.”

Edwards could not be reached for comment.