November 19, 2017

City council persuades Nelson to stay in manager position with pay raise

Nelson accepted position with Dow Chemical due to salary, perceived issues with council

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STANDISH — After hearing city Manager Jerry Nelson’s plans to take a job with Dow Chemical, the Standish City Council approved giving Nelson a $10,000 raise Sept. 6 in order to retain him, although he said the money wasn’t the only concern he had.

A motion to increase the wage effective immediately was made by Councilman Jacob Link, seconded by Councilwoman Vi Cook and approved 6-1. Mayor Ray Koroleski voted no on the motion, which would raise Nelson’s salary to $60,000.

“I want to stick with the three-year contract,” Koroleski said. “We’ve been building our funds and getting back on track.”

“I find it hard to justify a pay raise at this point,” he said.

Nelson told the Independent a recruiter contacted him about a position with Dow Chemical in early August, and he interviewed for two openings there, accepting one of the jobs offered to him. He said he entertained the call from the recruiter due to things that had come to his attention in the last couple months. Nelson said he heard from a community member and a council member that there was a prospect of council getting rid of his position.

“It made me start to think about my own security and my comfort level here, and it made me decide to at least entertain what they had to say, and that’s what it led to,” he said.

Nelson said he began to tell council members his plans after accepting the Dow position the last week of August. Council members were supportive of Nelson Wednesday and said any issues going on behind the backs of other council members and city staff members needed to be put to rest.

“I just feel I don’t want him to leave because of all this crap that’s going around,” Cook said.

“My thought is I don’t want to see Jerry go,” she said. “We’ve just gotten into where we’re doing something good for the city.”

Council members talked about Nelson working with legislators to acquire nearly $2 million from the state for water reimbursements and a grant for the city park on Airpark Drive as some of his accomplishments. Craig Berry of the city’s department of public works was in attendance at the meeting and also spoke highly of Nelson. Berry said he has worked with four city managers in Standish and that Nelson was the best one so far.

Berry encouraged the city to at least make an offer to Nelson with a higher salary, one close to what Dow was offering.

“At least match his salary or try to get him to stay,” he said. “I never heard anything about him going anywhere until last week. He had us all up there and told us he was going to leave and I thought ‘Oh great now we’re going to have another city manager.’”

Eventually the discussion did turn toward Nelson’s wages, which were increased from $42,250 upon his hiring in 2016 to $50,000 after six months. Nelson said he understood where Koroleski was coming from on wanting to stick with the contract, but that he had long felt the city was paying too little for a qualified city manager. He had made the same argument when he was a councilman and the city was looking for a new manager then.

“We’re about $10,000 to $15,000 short on a city manager,” he said. “I understand what you’re saying and you’re exactly right on that $50,000. I agreed for three years.”

Koroleski said even if Nelson ultimately decided to take the Dow job rather than stay with the city, he wouldn’t support posting the job for $65,000 to begin. He said he felt the city hadn’t been putting enough money aside for road and sidewalk improvements, and that it wasn’t in a position for the pay raise.

Link said over the next 15 years — Nelson said he had planned to work for the city for 15 years and then retire — $10,000 per year would cost the city $150,000, and he felt that Nelson helping to acquire nearly $2 million for water reimbursements from the state was well worth the additional salary.

Nelson said the Standish city manager position would be his last job, and that when approached by Cook about what it would take to keep him in town, he told her $60,000.

“I’m leaving a little bit on the table,” he said. “It may sound corny, but Standish means something to me.”

Nelson said he wasn’t trying to place an ultimatum on the city and that if it didn’t want to increase his wage to a competitive amount, he would’ve understood that decision.

“I’ve heard some talk that people are thinking I’m putting a gun to the city’s head,” he said. “That’s not my intention.”

Upon council’s decision to pay him close to the Dow job, Nelson said he did contact a Dow representative and alert them he planned to stay with the city.

A rate study conducted by Standish Clerk-Treasurer Peggy Burtch and shared with Councilwoman Tifanie Tremble showed wages for Burtch’s and Nelson’s positions compared to cities of similar size. Burtch said she was collecting the data for her salary. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city’s population at last count, 2010, was 1,509. The study showed that four cities, Breckenridge, Crystal Falls, Frankfort and Harbor Springs, all had fewer residents but paid more than $50,000. All four also paid more than the agreed-upon $60,000.

However, the study also showed that Memphis and Luna Pier, cities with slightly lower populations, paid less. Luna Pier’s consolidated clerk-treasurer-manager position paid $41,500, and Memphis operated without a city manager at all, according to the rate survey.

The discussion regarding wages in regards to performance led to Link asking about performance reviews. Nelson said he hadn’t been evaluated since he was hired as city manager in January 2016. Link said that is a problem, and his motion included wording about evaluations going forward.

“It seems like an inherently flawed system when we can’t sit at the council and tell you you’re doing your job or not,” he said.

“How are you supposed to ever know you’re doing well if we can’t tell you that?” Link said.

Prior to casting his no vote, Koroleski said he wanted to be clear that his vote would not affect his relationship with Nelson or council going forward.

“It’s not any reflection on how the city will run and how we’ll work,” he said. “We are individuals and we vote our conscience.”

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