Baltimore City Council approved a 30% salary increase for the head of the Department of Public Works Monday night, setting up the position to be the third-highest paid in the city.
The increase, which was proposed by Mayor Brandon Scott, brings the salary to $245,000. The DPW director’s salary is set by city ordinance and requires City Council approval to change. Until now, the director was paid $188,000.
Ahead of Monday’s meeting the proposal had languished for several weeks in a committee. But the full board voted unanimously to pass the measure in an expedited manner by invoking a rule that allows council to advance legislation from second reading to a final third reading on the same day.
Baltimore has been without a permanent director in the Department of Public Works since the retirement of Rudolph S. Chow in early 2020. Matthew Garbark is the acting director.
Scott’s administration has argued the salary hike is necessary to hire competitively among other cities of Baltimore’s size. During a committee hearing on the proposal in February, Quinton Herbert, the city’s director of human resources, said a market study showed Baltimore’s position is unique among large municipalities. Other cities typically divide the work of Baltimore’s director among several people, he said.
Ultimately, officials looked to the CEO of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, whose water and sewer system has similar capacity to the city, for a comparison of responsibilities. That position is paid $289,468.
Baltimore’s DPW director position is heavily scrutinized, as he or she oversees Baltimore’s crumbling water infrastructure and failing sewer system.
The water system, owned by Baltimore City but also serving Baltimore County, has been plagued for years by billing problems. In December, a report released by city Inspector General Isabel Cumming and Baltimore County Inspector General Kelly Madigan highlighted millions of dollars in lost revenue due to thousands of broken meters and more than 8,000 unresolved “tickets” on problems with customers’ accounts.
Baltimore is also subject to a $1.6 billion consent agreement with the federal government to overhaul its sewer system and stop wastewater from polluting the Inner Harbor by 2030.
Trash collection, also within DPW’s purview, has been strained by the coronavirus pandemic. Parts of the operation remain suspended, and the city halted curbside recycling collection for six months to focus on trash pickup, which has increased by 22% during the pandemic. Recycling service restarted in January with the help of five contractors who could cost the city up to $7 million this year.
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Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer argued during the February hearing the position should be paid more than the proposed increase given its responsibilities.
“Frankly, I don’t think $245,000 is a enough to get the No. 1 DPW director in the entire country here in Baltimore,” he said.
But several members of council cautioned city officials Monday that they expect to see results from the department if the director is to get a raise. Baltimore must fix its water billing system, said Councilwoman Odette Ramos.
“I really struggled with this. There are so many needs in our city,” she said. “We all have very high expectations for what this administrator is going to have to do.”
The salary increase makes the DPW director one of the city’s highest paid employees. Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has the highest base salary, at $275,000 a year. In December, the city’s Board of Estimates approved a $250,000 salary for Baltimore’s new city administrator position. Christopher Shorter currently holds that position in an acting capacity pending council’s approval.