Kalispell City Council approved the employment contract for the new city manager Monday on a 7-2 vote, over the objections of some on the council and in the public who questioned whether the salary and other benefits in the package are too generous.
Jane Howington, currently the assistant city manager of operations for Dayton, Ohio, is scheduled to begin work as Kalispell’s new city manager around Aug. 4. The vote by the council allows Mayor Pam Kennedy to sign a contract with Howington paying her $112,500, with an additional yearly payment of $5,000 deferred compensation that will be allocated to a retirement plan. Howington’s current salary in Dayton, a city of about 170,000, is $119,600, according to the Dayton Daily News.
Councilmen Tim Kluesner and Bob Hafferman opposed ratifying the contract on the grounds that the compensation being given to the new city manager is inappropriate at a time when Kalispell has been grappling with serious budget strains.
“Folks, I cannot defend to anybody in the public and I cannot substantiate to anybody in the public this salary given the financial situation this city is in right now,” Kluesner said. “We are in a hole and this does not look good.”
Kluesner was so incensed by the cost of the employment package and hiring process, he suggested Kalispell look into returning to a strong mayor form of government, since the hiring and firing of city managers has proven so expensive. He also questioned some of the benefits offered, particularly the offer of up to $20,000 in moving expenses and the use of a city car.
“I think this is a very bad precedent to set,” he said. “I don’t think it’s right to be using public funds, public property for non-business use.”
Three members of the public, including Mickey Lapp and Denise Smith of the Flathead Business and Industry Association, also questioned these provisions of the contract.
At its June 22 meeting, council members agreed to allow Kennedy, Interim City Manager Myrt Webb and Councilman Duane Larson to negotiate a contract with Howington with a salary range within the original job posting, between $95,000 and $125,000. But at Monday’s meeting, Hafferman objected to being confronted with a contract to support or oppose, without the option to negotiate further.
“Why we are being asked to approve an agreement essentially already finalized is simply beyond my capabilities of comprehension,” Hafferman said. “This agreement should have been made after we had this meeting, but as usual, the cart got ahead of the horse again.”
But a clear majority of council members, including Webb, supported the employment contract, pointing out Howington’s 26 years of experience in government, dual masters’ degrees in public administration and planning, and her willingness to move across the country for a position offering less money, with no guarantees on how long the job will last.
The council’s first choice, Matt McKillip of Kokomo, Ind., was offered $105,000 in salary, Kennedy said, but he had less experience than Howington. Having served one term as Kokomo’s mayor, McKillip had never before held the position of strictly city manager.
Webb said the use of a city car, which is part of the city’s economic development department and not currently in use, was a big incentive during negotiations with Howington, yet wouldn’t cost the city much. He also called the idea of offering someone $7,000 to move their family from Ohio, “kind of ridiculous.”
Other council members pointed out that every city in Montana of comparable size to Kalispell pays their city manager six figures or more, and the idea of hiring someone to manage a budget of $52 million, for under $100,000 is not realistic.
“I think we hired a person that can take care of this city – I’d like to hire somebody for $80,000 too, but they weren’t available,” Councilman Hank Olson said. “You guys can tear it apart all you want to, I think it was done correctly and I think you’ve hired a good person.”
Councilman Wayne Saverud noted that to turn down a contract, at this stage, after nine months of Kalispell lacking a permanent city manager, was not a cheap option either.
“We have to compete with communities across the country,” Saverud said. “If we nickel and dimed and held the negotiating committee to a lesser figure, there’s a very good chance we could be back at square one and that’s expensive too.”
Kennedy agreed, and added that someone of Howington’s qualifications was necessary to help Kalispell begin to build up its cash reserves and steer the city through the current economy.
“I believe that we’ve negotiated the best possible contract that we could negotiate in order to get someone of this caliber to our community,” Kennedy said. “I have no doubt that she will be able to assist us in these really tight budget times.”
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