In a year where Metro Nashville’s rank and file employees learned they would not get their promised cost of living increases, Nashville Mayor David Briley gave merit raises to 20 members of his staff; two of whom received 6 percent increases.
One Briley staffer, Chief Strategy Officer Brian Kelsey, got a $7,178 raise, increasing his salary to $126,824. Briley also gave merit-based raises to his department heads.
Briley’s decision to reverse the cost of living adjustments - called COLAs - for Metro employees has created a lot of controversy and tension this year.
Workers like 18-year veteran librarian Bridget Radford complained at a June budget hearing that cutting the cost of living adjustment hurts the people who keep the city running.
“The people who keep the streets clean, who keep our water flowing, who make our parks a welcoming oasis, educate our children and protect our citizens,” Radford said.
Radford said that during the tough years of 2008 and afterward, city workers were asked to “tighten our belts, to do more with less, and we did,” she said.
“We believed the city would make us whole,” Radford said.
Workers were given a 2 percent raise last year with the promise of a 3 percent increase for the next two years. But those increases were rescinded by the Briley administration.
“We believed you,” Radford said. “We have it in writing. It was approved by the city council and the Civil Service Commission.”
Then in May, Briley told Metro workers during his state of Metro speech that the city had to tighten its belt and that there would be no cost of living increases after all.
"I wish I could have done more for our hard-working Metro employees," Briley told the crowd.
Two months after that speech, 20 of the 27 employees who work directly for the mayor got raises. One worker got a 2.5 percent increase; seven got 3 percent raises; 10 workers got 3.5 percent raises and two workers got a 6 percent increase.
The News 4 I-Team’s Nancy Amons asked Briley about the 6 percent raises.
"Well, as I look at your list, two people took on additional responsibilities in that time frame," Briley said.
His staff said in a follow-up email that the two staff members who received 6 percent increases had gotten “significant promotions to management-level positions. Their jobs changed entirely,” said Laura Braam, a newly-hired member of Briley’s media team.
Nine of the mayor's staffers who got raises make more than $100,000 per year.
Amons brought the results of her investigation to Metro Council members.
"This is borderline absurd. This kind of defies logic. If we're going to tighten our belt, I think everybody ought to tighten their belt," said Councilman Jonathan Hall.
"It would appear that the rich get richer," Councilman John Cooper said.
"It's not fair. We need to fix that," said Councilwoman Mina Johnson.
The mayor’s direct employees were not the only Metro workers who received this type of merit raise, which is called an Open Range pay increase.
According to Metro’s Human Resources office, Metro employees were given a total of $3.8 million in Open Range increases. The raises were scheduled to take effect in July 2018.
Briley gave 2.5 percent pay raises to most of his department heads; some of those department heads also gave raises to their top managers.
Police Chief Steve Anderson received a 2.5 percent increase, bumping his salary to $222,743.
Anderson gave eight of his deputy chiefs and commanders 5 percent raises. All now make more than $119,000 per year.
Metro's Finance Director Talia Lomax-O’dneal got a $4,534 raise, making her new salary $185,921.
Nancy Whitemore, the Director of General Services, received a $4,067 raise, increasing her salary to $167,127.
The Chief Information Officer Keith Durbin’s salary increased to $167,286 after his raise.
Nashville Fire Chief Will Swann refused his 2.5 percent pay increase, choosing to pass the Open Range money along to 19 administrators under him.
Briley said that although city workers would not get cost of living adjustments this year, 71 percent of the city’s work force could expect their paychecks to increase during the coming year. Workers can get what are called step increases – that’s an annual pay bump until they are at the top of their salary range – or an Open Range raise.
“I certainly wished we could have done the cost of living adjustment, that's what I've been saying all along. But because I was committed to not raising taxes this year we didn't have the revenue necessary to give everybody a COLA,” Briley said.
"But if the city's broke, why are department heads getting raises?" Amons asked.
"The city's not broke," Briley said.
“Out of the 9,552 Metro employees (not including Metro Schools), 6,813 were eligible for either open-range or step increases this year; 1,299 were not eligible for either because they had already maxed out their pay rates,” Braam wrote in a follow-up email.
“We lost 13 staff members due to attrition and have only replaced seven. As a result, Mayor’s Office salaries are down 11 percent from FY 18 to FY 19. As another way to put it, we have 32 FTEs in the Mayor’s Office, counting the Mayor. Of those, only 23 are filled,” Braam added.
The three highest-paid staffers in the Mayor’s Office did not receive an increase: Matt Wiltshire, the Director of Economic and Community Development, who promoted the MLS stadium deal to Metro Council, remains at his current salary of $162,296.
The salary of Chief of Staff Deborah Dale Mason, who Briley said is leaving his staff, remained at $169,728.
Rich Riebeling, the Mayor’s Chief Operating Officer, who Briley also said is leaving, did not get an increase. His salary is listed at $209,508.
The mayor did not get a raise. His salary is $180,000.