City Hall observers are speculating that longtime city administrator David Tooley, and possibly other high-ranking city officials, may be stepping down, or may have been terminated late last week after weeks of criticism by residents claiming excessive raises and salaries are being paid to senior staff by the City of Madera.
City officials contacted by The Madera Tribune over the weekend and Monday declined to comment on the matter, or were unavailable.
Three secret, or closed-session, items listed as “Public Employee Discipline/Dismissal/Release” were on the agenda of the Madera City Council the night of Dec. 6. One item was reportedly settled but not made public, and two others were said by officials to still be under review.
Statistics gathered recently by prominent builder-developer Mike Pistoresi from www.transparentcalifornia.com and other sources appears to show the city administration recommended, and city council members approved, salary increases between 20 to 50 percent for senior city officials over the last four years, all while the city was approaching a $1 million-plus budget deficit, largely due to its unfunded city pension obligations for employees.
Pistoresi said he wasn’t sure if any of it was the result of corruption or was illegal, but city officials, starting at the top, appeared to be enriching themselves while cutting or threatening to further reduce city services, laying off rank-and-file workers, all at the expense of the Madera taxpayers.
“This is outrageous and appalling,” Pistoresi said. “They both are complicit. The city stacked the salary study (comparison) numbers and former and current city councils didn’t question it. They just went along with it,” he said.
The city, claiming deficits and crying poor, convinced voters in 2016 to pass a 1 percent sales tax increase via ballot Measure K, reportedly to generate an additional million dollars-plus each year to fund police, fire and other essential services.
Measure K was passed as a general tax, which means the money derived from it can be spent on anything the council votes to spend it on.
Skyrocketing city water and sewer rates have also drawn public ire, as the aging city sewer plant struggles to function. Water rates in Madera may be the highest in the state, according to Pistoresi.
He said the water and sewer operational expenses don’t seem to add up, and the entire water and sewer issue needs immediate review. At least a $4 million deficit has been noted in the sewer plant fund, in the most recent city budget.
Pistoresi said he had been hearing about so-called cronyism, alleged incompetence and the issue of city salaries for years, but had only recently inspected the city filings and stacks of other reports required by and made public or to the state.
“The City Council is not here to make friends or to trust (the staff) ...” Pistoresi said.
“They are inexperienced with (big) business but they are here to look out for the taxpayer finances, not be a rubber stamp for city staff. Council needs to wake up. Go back in and re-adjust these (large city) salaries.”
Part of the problem according to Pistoresi is the nature of elected part-time City Councils in small cities. Civic minded people are elected with little or no background in large business and are no match for municipal officials with more sophisticated financial skills, he said.
Pistoresi also suggested reprioritizing basic services, reviewing other large project contracts and auditing “enterprise” or water and sewer funds.
“The city is a big business. And it needs to be run like a big business, not for the benefit of staff. When you start paying department heads this kind of money you’ve bought their loyalty. They are not going to make waves because you’ve given them more money than they have ever dreamed of in their lives.”
Contesting the theory that the large salary amounts were necessary to retain qualified personnel, Pistoresi asked “Where else are they going to go and earn this kind of money? I mean, show me a city clerk in the state of California that makes $181,000 a year with benefits? A manager in a small city making $333,500?” Pistoresi said. “That’s including salary and benefits, but that’s still the cost to the taxpayers. Who the heck gets these kind of salaries?” he said.
Of the 11 other cities used in the recent salary comparison studies almost all had higher income levels than Madera, he said, and the inclusion of larger, wealthier cities skewed the salary study data.
“So I am wondering how in the heck they were able to justify these salary increases based on these comparisons of 10 larger and higher income cities, including Clovis and Fresno. But they did. (In one year) the director of financial services got a $35,335 raise, city attorney got $33,500 raise, HR Director $15,442 raise, police chief $25,724 raise ... in some cases a 50 percent increase over the last four years.” Pistoresi said.
In years past generous pensions were legitimately used to supplant low salaries paid by civil service positions in government, he said, but that is no longer the situation.
These recent large salary increases also have the effect of maxing out the levels of pension the retired city employees will collect for life, adding to the long term pension fund costs paid by Madera taxpayers.
“The other cities also don’t appear to be making these same pension contributions at these kind of rates. Madera management and employees (negotiated this and) were setting themselves up for the future,” while Madera struggles, said Pistoresi.
“I have lived here all my life. I am proud of my hometown. But when taxpayers are not paying attention or are not involved in their own government these are the results,” Pistoresi said.
“My family came here in 1921 and this is where my home is. And I know people that have recently given up and left the city because of the way the city has gone. I’m tired of it and this needs to stop. I’d like to see (city executive) salaries cut, people replaced. Hire from within. And spend the taxpayer money on the city and not on salaries. A lot of these senior city staff don’t even (choose to) live here. They take their money from Madera elsewhere — to live in places like Clovis and Fresno.” Pistoresi said.
Pistoresi said he had no ax to grind or any previous conflicts with the city, and wasn’t running for any political office.
“I am a relative layman at government and I’ve just started (looking) into this. But it’s easy to see once you start digging. People need to get involved. Call (or attend) your city council and raise hell.” Pistoresi said.
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Messages for the Mayor and or members of the city council can be left at 661-5405. Regular meetings of the Madera City Council are held the first and third Wednesday of each month at 6:00 p.m. Meetings are held in the Council Chambers at City Hall at 205 W. 4th St., Madera. The public is invited to attend.
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A special meeting of the City Council is set for 6 p.m. Wednesday night at City Hall.