The back and forth started when city commissioner of finance, Michele Madigan, proposed a unanimously approved communication and compliance plan for the SSHA at the May 15 city council meeting. The plan outlined the board’s obligation to present city council with detailed information regarding SSHA employee salary and compensation for the council’s approval.
The housing authority board responded to the council’s request in the form of an 11-page letter with a two-page addendum. Despite the length of the response, city council wasn’t exactly satisfied with its contents.
“I would have preferred a response in which they were more open to coming forward with the salaries,” commented Madigan. “I believe it’s been well-established by public housing law 32 that local legislative bodies have the approval authority over certain salaries paid to the housing authority.”
According to public housing law, the authority can fill the various positions that it requires, determine the qualifications and duties of each position and, “subject to the approval of the local legislative body,” decide each position’s compensation.
“[City council] got an 11-page response not answering any of their questions,” said Commissioner of Accounts John Franck. “I personally am very disappointed but not surprised at all. I believe this board feels that they’re above the city and that the city has nothing to do with it. We don’t feel the same. We feel that the law is pretty clear.”
The board’s chairman, Eric Weller, instead saw the request as an opportunity to defend the SSHA and its board’s decision-making process.
“We were accused of a number of things,” said Weller. “The public perception was that we hadn’t done what we should have done and it seemed to me that a full answer was required for that. We then faced a series of charges that were brought against us by members of the city council and we felt we should respond to those before we went any further.”
Among those charges were concerns with what was regarded as exorbitant hikes in the salary of SSHA Executive Director Ed Spychalski. In five years, Spychalski’s pay rate nearly doubled, with him making close to $152,000 in 2011.
“In 1981, it was decided that the pay of the executive director should be comparable to the pay of the principal of the local high school,” said Weller, who was not a party involved with the decision. “That’s what we were supposed to be abiding by. When we hired Ed Spychalski, about six years ago, he pointed out that [rate] was not being met. Over the next few years we tried to honor that supposed comparability standard and raise his salary to the level of the local high school principal.”
At the time of Spychalski’s appointment as executive director, the principal of Saratoga Springs High School had been employed by the school district for 19 years.
“I think since [Spychalski’s hire] the principal may have retired,” said Weller. “I haven’t seen the latest figures of what his salary was before he retired, but we had every reason to believe it was somewhere up around $130,000. So when we got to that level, because we recognized that Ed was doing a superb job, we decided to recognize that in the form of a one-time 5 percent bonus.”
Since the board stopped presenting compensation and salary information to the city council in 2000, and the city council didn’t actively require them to, the SSHA’s executive director’s pay has been increased multiple times on the basis of a “supposed” agreed-upon standard.
“His salary, based on any comparability study, is way over what he should be paid, but the board feels that they are in control over it,” said Franck. “They don’t want anybody telling them what his salary can be, and that’s where we’ve been butting heads over the last six, seven months.”
The dispute of authority between city council and the SSHA board has led to an audit by the New York State Comptroller’s Office and a freeze on all SSHA salaries, and Weller said that once the audit’s results come in, they will be ready to more thoroughly respond to city council’s request.
“The audit was ordered because of all these charges and allegations,” said Weller. “And we thought, ‘Well, we don’t think we did anything wrong, but let’s wait for the New York State Comptroller’s Office to run their audit and we will find out. Maybe we did do something inadvertently wrong, but let’s find out.’ Then we will look at the total picture and respond.”
Weller expects results from the audit sometime in August.
In the meantime, the salary freeze has spawned rumors among city officials of a possible SSHA employee unionization, and the board itself is divided on how to communicate with city council.
“I have no knowledge of [unionization talks],” said Weller. “But I am sure that certainly some of the employees are unhappy because of the salary freeze that we enacted. My understanding is that as soon as we get the audit report from the comptroller’s office and if everything is fine, then we are free to make some adjustments.”
In an attempt at transparency, the newest SSHA board member, Ken Ivins, former city commissioner of finance, called for several resolutions to be added to the board’s July 19 meeting agenda, including a request that Weller make a salary presentation at the next city council meeting. The board voted 4-2 against him.
“They shut him down,” said Franck. “They wouldn’t allow him to bring it to the table. That was very disappointing.”
“[City council] has full information on salaries and budgets,” said Weller. “I don’t see an issue here.”