VERO BEACH — When James O’Connor takes over the job of Vero Beach City Manager on or about August 1, he will be the highest-paid employee in the city with extra retirement benefits and three months of living expenses paid.
Those were the terms that the Vero Beach City Council agreed to on Tuesday, meeting O’Connor’s demands for more than what was offered last week by the city. On Tuesday evening, the Winchester Star was reporting that O’Connor had accepted the city’s offer and has notified members of the Winchester City Council that he’s leaving.
The amended employment contract approved on Tuesday gives O’Connor:
$145,000 annual salary with the possibility for cost of living increases after two years
General employee health and life insurance benefits
Monthly vehicle allowance and mileage for out-of-county travel
$20,000 moving expenses
Up to $3,000 temporary housing allowance to help defray rent for three months
3 percent of salary deposited into a retirement account set up with the International City Managers’ Association
Severance package of up to 12 months salary, gradually decreasing over three years, for termination without cause
No severance for termination with cause
Upon renewal of the contract, the Vero Beach City Council will have the opportunity to negotiate a reduction of O’Connor’s salary based upon possible reduced duties should the city successfully divest itself of the electric, water and sewer utilities. Work related to utility matters has been estimated by previous city managers to consume up to 50 percent of their time on the job.
The council voted 4-1 with Councilman Brian Heady dissenting.
Heady railed against paying O’Connor more than former City Manager Jim Gabbard was being paid after 24 years of service to the city. Heady also blasted O’Connor for coming back and asking for more fringe benefits.
“It seems like the face of greed, the face of excess, the face of disregard for taxpayer dollars,” Heady said.
“I take issue with the comments depicting O’Connor as a person of greed,” said Vice Mayor Pilar Turner. “He’s looking at a lateral move.”
The compensation package was designed to match what O’Connor is being paid by the City of Winchester, Va. where he’s served as City Manager since January 2010.
Despite the solid support from his fellow council members, Heady was not willing to buy the justification that Vero needed to offer O’Connor a comparable package to get him to move to Vero. Heady said that anyone moving to a Southern state should realize that salaries are not the same as up North. Previously the point was also raised that O’Connor will not have to pay state income tax as he does in Virginia at a rate of 5.75 percent, so he will actually be getting a raise.
“Maybe we ought to give him a Publix card, too,” Heady said, to illustrate how overly generous he felt the offer was that was made to O’Connor, even without the additional concessions.
Heady, in a lengthy speech from the dais, made clear the disconnect between the standard of living being offered to the new City Manager and reality for the taxpayers of the City of Vero Beach in these tough economic times.
“This man wants us to pay his living expenses. It seems to me with a salary of $145,000 he should be able to afford his own rent,” Heady said. “People in this community are struggling to pay their rent and they’re not on a salary of $145,000.”
While his fellow council members listened, awaiting their opportunity to vote, Heady continued, calling the compensation package “the height of fiscal irresponsibility” and “a slap in the face to the rest of the employees.”
Vero’s general fund and utility employees have been on a 5 percent furlough salary reduction since October 2009 due to dwindling property tax and state cost-sharing revenues. The Police Department has been on a 10-day per year furlough since October 2010.
Heady also protested that the additional 3 percent contribution into O’Connor’s retirement account could create a dangerous and costly precedent when it comes time to negotiate union contracts for city workers. No other city worker gets a retirement contribution above and beyond the city pension plan.
As an alternative, Heady proposed the City Council stay the course and have Interim City Manager Monte Falls keep doing double-duty as both City Manager and Public Works Director. Falls took on the added responsibilities for only $500 more per month, which has saved the city between $80,000 and 90,000 — possibly up to $100,000 this year, if benefit costs are included.
“The current (Interim) City Manager is wrapping up the budget, let’s put this off for two months until we see the new budget,” Heady said.
Mayor Jay Kramer commented about Falls that “I don’t see a person that is passionate about being City Manager.”
“He’s had time to apply for the position, I don’t see that ambition in him just yet, it’s almost a relief that he’s not going to be City Manager here in a little while,” Kramer said. “If Monte wanted the job, I would not have gone this far.”
Falls will continue to work during the transition and he said last week that he would try to get O’Connor to take some of his vacation time so he can be in Vero a couple of days here and there when important meetings take place.