Questions are being raised by Albany city government leaders whether the treasurer can cut his own pay so his staff can be awarded raises.
The powers behind New York's financially challenged Capital City are always on the lookout for ways to avoid red ink... "The admonition from the budget office and the mayor's office was that if you could find savings within your own budget, you could re-apply those savings to staff raises. And our budget, which is staff-heavy, not a lot of other costs there to be cut, really lent itself to only one place to find savings in my budget. That was from my salary."
That's City Treasurer Darius Shahinfar, who is making a bold move: he wants to cut his own paycheck by nearly a third to fund raises for the 17 people staffing his office, who haven't seen a pay increase in years. "I don't want to get into a situation which has happened in other municipalities and certainly in city hall particularly in the Corporation Counsel's office where we began to lose people with long-running institutional knowledge of the city because they're taking higher salaries elsewhere. That's really what this is to prevent because once that does happen, then the raises have to come from somewhere else at that point, and that's a big loss to the city."
Mayor Kathy Sheehan weighs in: "I think it really is something that the common council needs to take a close look at. It would require legislation, as I understand it, and I think that that legislation would have to permanently reduce the salary of the city treasurer."
So the onus is on the common council to determine if it has legal authority to adjust Shahinfar's pay at this point in his term. Would he merely be giving back part of his salary or re-setting the pay rate for treasurer? "State law and local law usually prevents an elected official from having their salary cut. Those rules pre-suppose that that cut is coming from the budgeting authority. The mayor, the town supervisor, the legislative body. This is an unorthodox way of doing it because the elected official is seeking to have his own salary cut. While I think that there are certainly questions for the council to hash through, I think that this is something that we can find a way to do, and, also work in the concerns that they have with the salary for this position going forward. There's nothing that prevents salary from being increased down the road, and there's nothing to prevent changes to my salary, the treasurer's salary in the office going forward. We need not look so strictly at the way the rules work because they work for a purpose that is not really applicable here, in my view."
As noble as Shahinfar's intentions may be, the move comes close to the next citywide election. Common Council member Frank Commisso, who may run citywide, thinks the treasurer is pulling a political stunt, trying to distract voters from his record: "It certainly seems like a gimmick to me and wasn't even part of his budget proposal. And I think it was a last-minute ploy that was put together really to, try to, A, district from his record and B, to make the position less attractive to actual qualified opposition next year for citywide elections."
Shahinfar, who will seek a second four-year term next year, retorts: "If this is a political gimmick, then I think more public employees could use a gimmick like this."
Again, Mayor Sheehan: "I haven't reviewed the individual raises that are being proposed. I do believe that all of our employees deserve raises, and that we need to be working in order to be able to provide those."
Shahinfar adds that if the council rules in his favor... "It would create a cause of action on my part against the city for reducing my salary, but I have offered a waiver of liability to the city to protect the city from a lawsuit from me, since I'm the one who wants to do this."
Council member Leah Golby says the matter was discussed this week, but because the issue is so complex, members have trouble justifying it and at this point have no plans for further discussion.