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Hartford Council Questions Bonuses Awarded To Some City Employees

Moves To Take Decision Away From Mayor

By JENNA CARLESSO and STEVEN GOODE

March 20, 2013

HARTFORD Members of the city council want to take a closer look, as the city continues to face large budget deficits, at which city employees receive bonuses from the administration and why.

Councilman Kenneth Kennedy has introduced a proposal that would give the council the power to award the bonuses known as "exceptional service increments" instead of Mayor Pedro Segarra.

Currently, Kennedy said, the city's human resources director and other department heads can make recommendations as to which employees should receive bonuses, and the mayor approves or denies them. The bonuses are not contractual, council members said.

Records show that the city spent more than $160,000 in exceptional service increments from 2010 to 2013. The bonuses are awarded to employees who have gone outside the scope of their city duties by taking on additional responsibilities or doing work that has saved the city money, Kennedy said. Forty-five city employees received bonuses in the past 3 1/2 years.

Kennedy said the council probably wouldn't suspend the practice of issuing bonuses altogether, but it would take a more critical look at which employees are getting the rewards.

"There's a difference between someone doing their job well and getting a service increment," he said. "Just because you've been doing your job well the last four years, it doesn't mean you should get a service increment every year."

The city is facing a $9.4 million deficit this year and a projected $70 million deficit in 2013-14.

"We are the fiscal trustees of the city," Kennedy said. "It's our job to make sure every dollar is spent appropriately."

Jose Colon-Rivas, the city's director of families, children, youth and recreation, received a $16,223 bonus in 2011 and an $11,743 bonus in 2012, records show. Saundra Kee Borges, the city's corporation counsel and interim chief operating officer, received a bonus of $4,352 this year, and her deputy corporation counsel, L. John Van Norden, received a bonus of $2,625.

Colon-Rivas makes an annual salary of $152,250. Kee Borges' annual salary is $164,999, and Van Norden's is $130,000.

City spokeswoman Maribel La Luz defended Segarra's bonuses, saying Wednesday that his administration had reduced the amount given to employees by more than two-thirds since 2009, a year in which the city handed out $84,000 in bonuses.

La Luz said that the city also awarded more than $140,000 in bonuses in 2007 and nearly $180,000 in 2008.

"He has decreased them significantly," she said of the mayor.

Given the bleak fiscal outlook for 2013-14, La Luz said, Segarra might consider suspending the exceptional service increment program, at least for a year.

Segarra would entertain a proposal to limit the bonuses to 3 percent across all city departments, she said. But, she added, the mayor has no plans to approve any proposal that would take away his power to hand out bonuses.

Kennedy, a Democrat, said that although pay raises tend to be unpopular in a poor fiscal climate, bonuses are another way of increasing employees' salaries.

"I think they're actually a backdoor way for people to get pay raises," Kennedy said. "No one wants to approve pay raises, so you give them an exceptional service award."

Kennedy pointed out that Segarra laid off 14 people last fall to balance the 2012-13 budget. His proposal would also prohibit the awarding of bonuses within 18 months of city employees being laid off.

"I'm not sure that when you're laying people off, that it's the appropriate thing to do," he said of the bonuses. "This is public service. I think sometimes we lose track of that."

Kennedy said that council members would be more objective in considering bonuses.

"I'm not sure the mayor can be objective," he said. "When you have people close to you, who serve in your cabinet, can you really be objective as to whether they deserve a bonus or not? I think the council has a better chance of being objective."

Councilman Larry Deutsch, a member of the Working Families Party, agreed that the bonuses are "a bad idea in view of these economic times."

Deutsch said it was unfair to handpick employees for the exceptional service increments. The method used to determine who gets the bonuses raises questions about favoritism, he said.

City Council President Shawn Wooden said Wednesday that he was opposed to the bonuses.

"It's troubling that [the mayor] would use the ESI program to give out bonuses at the same time the city is laying off people," he said.

Wooden said the council could vote on Kennedy's proposal as early as Monday, at the next regularly scheduled city council meeting.

Segarra in the past has criticized others for awarding bonuses. In 2010, when he learned about $2.7 million in bonuses being paid to Hartford public schools employees, Segarra sent a stern letter to then-Superintendent Steven Adamowski criticizing the practice as "inappropriate in a time of great fiscal uncertainty."

Domenico Greco, the administrative operations manager for the city's finance department, received bonuses of $100 in 2011, $1,709 in 2012 and $5,228 this year. Marc Nelson, the city's tax collector, was awarded $5,690 in 2013. Greco's annual salary is $104,565, and Nelson's is $113,814.

Brian Heavren, an assistant police chief, received bonuses of $1,846 in 2012 and $2,153 in 2013. Heavren was named interim police chief in December 2011 after longtime Chief Daryl K. Roberts retired. But less than two months later, Segarra named James C. Rovella the new interim chief. Rovella went on to win the permanent police chief's job last summer.

Several executive assistants also received bonuses.

Theresa Brown, an assistant to Colon-Rivas, received bonuses of $2,495 in 2011 and $809 in 2012. Nancy Ortiz, another assistant to Colon-Rivas, received $204 in 2011, $4,090 in 2012 and $2,250 this year. Maritza Braithwaite, the assistant to the chief operating officer, received bonuses of $2,076 in 2010, $4,673 in 2011 and $3,461 in 2012. Brown's annual salary is $60,790, Ortiz's is $43,173 and Braithwaite's is $52,000.

If the proposal is approved by the council, Segarra will have the opportunity to veto it. The council has the power to override a veto, but seven members must vote in favor of the veto.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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