Recreation head salary bump surprises City Council

An apparent lack of transparency regarding a $5,000 salary hike for Justin Simpson, city recreation director, has Mayor Gabriel J. Campana defending himself over accusations he failed to communicate.

Campana said he raised department director Justin Simpson’s salary without informing City Council about the increase from $34,749 to $39,749, which is a pay hike of about 14.4 percent. And it’s not the first big pay raise for Simpson. He was hired two years ago at a $30,900 salary. The pay jump over two years comes out to about 28.6 percent.

Campana said he didn’t seek council’s permission because of the amount that could be transferred from one place in the budget to another and because it was a personnel matter.

After the Williamsport Sun-Gazette filed a Right-to-Know request to obtain the salary figure, the city responded with a letter, indicating it was “exercising its right to a 30-day extension of time, to review the request.”

“The extent or nature of the request precludes a response within the required time period,” the letter said of the five days required by state law for a public agency to respond to a Right-to-Know request.

Council President Bill Hall said Campana’s lack of informing council about using taxpayer dollars is an example of problems with transparency.

“The point is the lack of communication,” Hall said. “When the mayor decides he is going to spend taxpayers’ money and the budget is approved by seven on council, if he wants to exceed it and move money around, you would think he would at least communicate with those responsible for the budget.”

Councilwoman Liz Miele also suggested the next time the mayor decides to raise a department head’s salary to inform council, allowing time for input.

“Give us a progress report on the department,” she said.

Two others on council said they were not informed of the decision, including Councilman Don Noviello and Councilwoman Bonnie Katz.

Noviello, however, said Simpson has performed well by taking over responsibility of a department that was in disarray and in need of an assistant. To the councilman, the recreation opportunities have improved under Simpson’s leadership.

Katz said Simpson had done more than his fair share, taking on responsibilities such as Homemade Days and other special events.

Over the past two years, Simpson’s salary rose from a starting wage of $30,900, according to city finance figures.

Campana said he negotiated a lesser salary than the $37,000 wage approved by council in 2012.

“Communication goes both ways,” Campana said. “How often do city council members attend recreation commission meetings?” he asked. “How often do they ask Simpson how the department is progressing?”

“I evaluated him over two years to see his professionalism and whether he enhanced the department taken over by the city from the YMCA,” Campana said.

Earlier this year, Campana said he increased Simpson’s responsibilities by expanding summer recreation programs to Lose, Newberry and Young’s Woods parks.

At the time, Campana said he would pay for the increase by using savings the city saw when it switched over to have Benecon to administer healthcare. The estimated savings was $50,000 a year, a figure that was listed as $17,000 at a recent recreation commission meeting.

Nevertheless, Hall said no matter what savings are found, if city taxpayers get money back, council “wants to know how that money will be used.”

“If he had planned that he was going to give Simpson incremental increases, it would have been budgeted, but it wasn’t,” Hall said.

The position was budgeted at $34,749 this year.

“It’s the taxpayers’ dollars,” Hall said. “It’s council’s obligation and required responsibility to know how it is intended to be used.”