The city of Pataskala is beginning what the administration expects will be a three-year process: to equalize the pay of four employees who, most council members believe, are being significantly underpaid compared to similar central Ohio communities.

The city of Pataskala is beginning what the administration expects will be a three-year process: to equalize the pay of four employees who, most council members believe, are being significantly underpaid compared to similar central Ohio communities.

"The concept in a nutshell is, when you compare the low, medium and high ranges of salaries for like positions in central Ohio, these four jobs were on the low level," Mayor Steve Butcher said. "Council said it wanted to raise the jobs to the low average area, but that it did not want to do it in one year. Basically, they recognized these four employees were grossly underpaid, but the city did not have the financial ability to fix it one year."

The affected positions are the city's public-services director and the clerks for city council, the mayor's court and the police department. Currently, the service director earns a base pay of $54,690 plus the usual benefits; the council clerk earns $27,400; the mayor's-court clerk earns $33,260; and the police department's clerk earns $25,130.

Under the 2011 budget approved earlier this month, each of those positions would receive raises of 4 percent to 11 percent. The funds for the raises were included as part of the total budget. Council member Bryan Lenzo had asked council to separate those raises from the budget resolution, arguing that council had addressed the issue in July and voted unanimously not to address the salary imbalance.

"Back in July, council unanimously voted down the same request, and our budget situation since July has not improved," Lenzo said. "I don't see any reason to increase expenses in December. There is no question that these employees are being paid below market for their position. They go above and beyond, and no one disputes that.

"My issue is whether our financial situation allows it," he said. "I would not have been opposed to a 2-percent or 3-percent increase, but we are in the process of negotiation our union contracts with FOP and our skilled-service workers, and that is going to have an impact on how we pay all our staff. If we have 2-percent increases there, that has an impact on the rest of our unclassified staff."

Council member Dan Hayes said he was comfortable voting for the raises this year but that he wouldn't commit to future raises.

"I took issue with the way the city is describing this three-year salary correction because we voted only on an annual salary," Hayes said. "For 2011, this is not out of line because none of these folks have had a cost-of-living increase for at least three years. But I'm not tying my hands (for next year's budget). Administration has a plan (to increase the salaries over a three-year period), and that's good, but it does not mean that that will be council's plan."

Council member Bernard Brush said the issue of low salaries for the clerks and service director has been on council's radar for several years.

"We made a compromise," Brush said. "The idea was, it's a tight budget no matter what, but you want to let your employees know they're worthwhile and you're concerned with them. We tried to address those employees whose salaries are more out of sync than others, and we've spread it over a three-year period. The attempt is to get them close to a minimum target."

City finance director Jason Carr said the salary comparisons are based on a 2009 regional salary review prepared by the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, using 2008 salary data.

Butcher said the MORPC study was incomplete because it examined only nominal pay and did not include such benefits as health insurance and retirement.

"Wage comparison is not a perfect science," Butcher said. "Some members of council say we are not comparing all the variables (that make up total compensation) - life insurance, health insurance, retirement - all those things. You can also have positions that sound the same but do not actually match up. The person might be doing more than the average position, or they might not have as much responsibility as someone whose job title is similar. You might be paying them more than someone in another jurisdiction. You might be paying them less if you take into account what their duties are."

Hayes said he was leery of using only municipal comparisons, calling the reasoning circular.

"There is no question that these employees are underpaid," Hayes said. "But comparing them to other cities, I don't like to look at other governments as the benchmark of responsibility. It does nothing but spiral out of control, in my opinion. If we start looking at Worthington, and then they look at us, I think we should look at private industry to see what is appropriate."

For the 2011 budget, the public-services director will see a pay increase of about $6,000, to more than $60,000, or about 11 percent. The council clerk's base pay will increase by about $3,200, or 11.75 percent, to about $30,600. The mayor's-court clerk will see a 4.2-percent raise of about $1,390, to about $34,650. The police clerk will see a 5.5-percent raise of about $1,370, to about $26,500.

If the full plan is implemented, after three years the public-services director would be paid about $73,200, the council clerk about $35,780, the mayor's-court clerk about $40,890 and the police clerk about $28,300.