The city of Columbia’s recent hiring of a comparatively inexperienced city manager candidate at a salary of $190,000 has raised the question of how important experience is in setting a salary for the job.
Mayor Steve Benjamin said that when trying to determine an appropriate salary for Columbia’s city manager position, awarded earlier this month to former assistant city manager Teresa Wilson, City Council looked at a number of city managers’ salaries in comparable or “peer” cities.
Council examined nine cities – including Raleigh, Savannah, Augusta, Greenville and Greensboro – based on their size and form of government. Charleston, for example, was not considered since the coastal city has a strong-mayor form of government. By contrast, Columbia operates on a council-manager form of government similar to those cities surveyed.
Benjamin said council members looked at individual salaries and both the average and median salaries of cities on the list before finalizing their $190,000 offer to Wilson. At City Council’s Jan. 8 meeting, Wilson, 38, accepted the position, which pays $70,150 more than she was making as an assistant city manager and also comes with the use of a city car.
In addition, Benjamin said as part of that process, he talked with administrators at two other comparably sized cities and determined that outgoing city manager Steve Gantt’s salary of $175,000 would not be enough to attract qualified candidates.
“They both told me that compensation was not competitive if we wanted to attract a strong candidate,” he said.
Some council members say Wilson has abilities and natural strengths that made her a strong candidate. But some questions remain as to whether Wilson, a University of South Carolina law school graduate with five years and 11 months of employment with the city, has enough experience to warrant a $190,000 salary.
Council members did not consider the experience of the people managing the cities they looked at. A look at the four cities their peer city list – two larger and two smaller than Columbia – shows the pay for those municipalities’ top posts vary widely. But it also shows that each of those managers has more experience than Wilson does along with specific expertise in finance and public administration.
In many cases, those administrators as well as other managers on the “peer cities” list had 10 or more years of experience in municipal government before becoming city managers.
Given those examples and asked if he believed Wilson’s salary of $190,000 was commensurate with her experience, Benjamin said the salary was “set for the position.”
“Salary is commensurate with the responsibility,” he said. “It’s so important that the city manager of a large and growing city (like Columbia) with a $300 million budget in the heart of a 750,000-person region with complex operations and almost a billion dollars in assets ... that you be willing to hire talent and pay for talent.”
At least one city council member, however, thought the salary was too high.
“I just don’t see how we justify paying Ms. Wilson more money (than outgoing city manager Steve Gantt, who made $175,000) for a lot less years of experience,” Moe Baddourah said at the Jan. 8 meeting. “I just don’t think I can support this contract.”
Baddourah and Councilwoman Leona Plaugh were in the minority in the 4-2 vote to hire Wilson.
In addition to having more than a decade of municipal experience going into their positions, three of the four city managers at the peer cities examined had master’s degrees in public administration or economics. Outside of clerking one year for 5th Circuit Judge L. Casey Manning, Wilson has not practiced law since earning her degree in 1999. She taught public school for four years and worked one year in the USC president’s office as coordinator of government and community relations.
However, the mayor’s office has repeatedly said Wilson’s law degree counted toward the minimum qualifications required.
“The reality is we are looking at fundamentally changing the city and are looking for a certain skill set,” said Benjamin, who has praised Wilson’s work with economic development issues. “If you have someone who meets the needs of where you want to go as a city, I honestly don’t think we should spend 10,000 weeks defending compensation for someone who is qualified.”
Meanwhile, in the face of criticism of the council’s process, Wilson is determined to lead.
“I’m just going to do my job, and I’m going to be prayerful and dedicated,” she said.
Asked what she believes she brings to the table given concerns about her experience, Wilson said she got the job because of her knowledge and previous experience at the city dealing with economic development, job growth and “the potential for the continued growth of the city’s tax base and implementing programs.”
“Those are things that I’ve been doing already,” she said. “On top of that, I think I’m a good manager of people. ... And (I have) a real understanding of what this council has articulated as their vision for the next three to five years.”
Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.