August 22, 2014 at 8:21 am

Orr increases funds for City Council

Office budgets bumped by up to 66% to expand size of staff, pay

Orr (Paul Sancya / AP, file)

Detroit— Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr has increased funding this fiscal year for operation of Detroit City Council offices, allowing members to expand the size and pay of their staffs, even as their authority has been limited.

Orr’s spokesman Bill Nowling said the bump, which increases council members’ office budgets by up to 66 percent, will help the council implement Detroit’s debt-cutting plan when the city emerges from bankruptcy, which may not be until fall. The move also is tied in part to the council’s move to district representation for the first time in nearly a century, Nowling said.

The increase is laid out in Orr’s triennial budget beginning with the 2014-15 fiscal year, which started on July 1. The total $8.3 million budget for the council is higher than last year, but lower than before Detroit’s financial crisis forced spending cuts in all departments.

Council members can spend the allotted money as they wish. They currently employ between four and 14 staffers each, with a combination of full-time workers and part-timers ranging from interns and fellows to consultants, legislative assistants and policy analysts.

Council President Pro Tem George Cushingberry, for example, employs a longtime aide who is being paid $85 an hour as part-time chief of staff. The employee works no more than 25 hours per week under the contract, that runs through Oct. 23 and is capped at $30,600. In all, Cushingberry employs three full-time workers and 11 part-timers including students, interns and retirees. He plans to re-evaluate the agreements, which all expire in October, after Orr’s departure.

Cushingberry said his top aide, Arthur Divers, holds a Ph.D. and the “city is blessed to have him.”

“Dr. Divers (is) legendary in my district,” Cushingberry said, adding he plans to use some of the additional resources to strengthen paid intern research.

Orr’s decision to increase funding for the council contradicts an April 2013 recommendation from the city’s own restructuring consultant, Conway McKenzie, which called for a part-time council with one staff member per office.

“The EM has maintained all along that we need to have a functioning council in place to conduct the business of the city in the normal course and do the work that’s required,” Nowling said. “As far as bankruptcy and restructuring, they have a role to play and decisions to make because they are the elected leaders.”

Mike Mulholland, president of the American Federation Of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 207, which represents about 730 water department workers, said more funding for council operations is “infuriating.”

The union, he said, has been locked in negotiations since May 2012 and is faced with inferior medical and pension benefits and a contract agreement that would have workers making 2 percent less in 2018 than they did in 2008.

“I don’t care what happens to their budget. They don’t represent me,” he said of the city council. “Our viewpoint is, what good is a council whose role is prescribed by the EM’s power to override anything that they approve of?”

All council staff are contract employees and do not receive health care benefits or pensions.

Orr allocated $516,118 this fiscal year for President Brenda Jones to operate her office. That’s up from $321,000 in the prior fiscal year. Likewise, the panel’s pro tem and member offices received $448,798. They got $270,300 apiece in the 2013-14 fiscal budget year, records say.

Orr also recommended an office budget of $449,734 in 2015-16 and $459,175 for 2016-17. Jones’ office would get $517,194 and $528,051, respectively. The funding will be contingent on what’s available under the city’s plan of adjustment.

Under a new configuration approved by city voters in November, seven council members serve in districts and two, at-large. Jones is paid $80,757 annually. Other council members make $76,911. Despite this year’s increase, the City Council reduced its budget in recent years as the city teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.

The council slimmed its budget to $7 million in the last fiscal year from about $11 million. It put staff on contracts without benefits and merged its three divisions -- Fiscal Analysis, Research and Analysis and City Planning Commission/Historic Designation Advisory Board -- into one office, now called the Legislative Policy Division.

Among the council staff contracts approved by Orr:

■ Brenda Jones has six legislative assistants on contracts through Dec. 31, 2014. Their pay ranges from $47,520 for her chief of staff to $13,000 for an assistant.

■ Councilman James Tate, who represents District 1, has five legislative assistants, four of whom are being paid over $78,000 per year — more than his $76,911 salary.

■District 5 Councilwoman Mary Sheffield has contracts for six legislative assistants making a total of $262,208.Her top paid assistant makes $30 per hour for an annual salary of $62,640.

■District 6 Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez has five full-time employees; three policy analysts, a constituent manager and executive assistant, three of whom make more than $50,000 per year. Her office also has two part-time staffers and a fellow.

■At-large member Saunteel Jenkins has four staffers, compensated between $20.19 and $31.78 an hour. District 7 councilman Gabe Leland has four legislative assistants, three of whom are paid above $60,000. He also has a part-time employee.

■District 3 Council member Scott Benson has contracts for 11 staffers including a student intern, consultant, two policy analysts and three legislative assistants, among others. The intern is paid $10 an hour, while the consultant gets $30 per hour.

'Choice that I made'

Tate said opting to pay some of his five staffers more than himself was “a choice that I made.”

The office has been holding monthly meetings in the northwest Detroit district he represents for more than a year and facilitates bi-monthly meetings at local businesses. The councilman and his staff hold office hours, host forumsand take part in upwards of 40 community meetings per month, on top of assisting with resident concerns and maintaining social media accounts, he said..

“It’s about making sure I’ve got the right team,” he said. “I’m provided a budget and can use it to go toward whatever is necessary to further the execution of my office.”

Former Detroit City Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel said the increased funding for city council is an indication of the recalibrated relationship between the city’s executive and legislative branches.

“The increase in the budget was a measure of the success the new council has had in establishing its own identity, a different relationship with the administration and a different view of council that’s been around for a while,” said Cockrel, who served 16 years on the council and now heads a consulting company.

Members say the restoration reflects Orr’s recognition of the historic change in the council’s structure.

“There’s a need to have a presence in the district,” said second-term Councilman Andre Spivey, who represents District 4. “That requires extra dollars.”

Spivey is using $336,414 of his budget to pay his five staff members. Most of the team, he said, have master’s degrees and a couple, more than two decades of experience.

Castaneda-Lopez said the money Orr restored for office budgets enabled her to hire a constituent service manager, facilitate additional workshops and maintain a newsletter.

“(Orr) recognized the cuts are too drastic and is returning funds to the council so they can operate more efficiently,” she said.

CFerretti@detroitnews.com