See past the sticker shock in city manager’s raise


We all had a bit of sticker shock when the Fort Madison City Council approved an immediate 8 percent increase for City Manager David Varley.

It was big enough news that I sent it out from Council Chambers on our social media platforms. We had responses before I even left the meeting.

Eight percent? I sat in a Lee County Supervisors budget meeting Friday afternoon, and they’re talking about potential wage freezes if department heads can’t bring expenses more in line. The suggestions were just part of many tossed around as possible solutions to a $3 million fiscal year shortfall, but Varley’s boost seemed lofty considering the economies of Lee County.

But we would encourage you to take a closer look at that number. It takes Varley’s salary to just over $110,000 from $101,920. That may seem a bit hard to swallow, and considering the agenda listed a 5% increase, which was quickly amended by Councilman Chris Greenwald to 8 percent, it became a bigger gulp.

I heard a really cool guy once say, “if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”. Obviously $101,920 isn’t peanuts compared to some of the salaries in the county’s private sector. But in the world of municipal administration the bar’s set pretty high.

Let’s take a little bit closer look at what city officials are up against when the salaries of other communities’ city managers are stacked up against Fort Madison.

As part of the discussion on the increase, several tables were introduced that compared Fort Madison data on taxable property valuations, per capita property tax, and revenue per capita to 10 other cities in Iowa between populations of 10,000 and 15,000. That table included the cities of Altoona and North Liberty with city manager salaries at $159,585 for Altoona and $140,642 for North Liberty. However the populations according to listed North Liberty at 18,520 and Altoona at 17,938.

In contrast, the Iowa Demographics site had Carroll, another city listed as being in the 10,000 to 15,000 range only had a population of 9,900, with a city manager’s salary of $116,050, a full $6,000 per year over Varley’s new pay rate.

The most telling information came when comparing Keokuk to Fort Madison. According to the Iowa Demographic data, Keokuk and Fort Madison are only 166 residents apart in population with Fort Madison slightly larger. The data presented to the council, showed Keokuk with a taxable valuation of $300.2 million and Fort Madison at $282.3 million, roughly 94% of Keokuk’s.

The same table showed Keokuk’s property tax per capita at $390 while Fort Madison’s is $381, 98%. Expenditures by the city on its residents was roughly 26% higher in Fort Madison but Varley’s pay rate was 85% of Burnett’s, who did get bumped to his current rate in the second half of 2017. Varley’s increase now puts his salary at 92% of Burnett’s.

Another chart presented at the meeting showed Varley’s pay 14 places below comparable positions of cities in Iowa with less than 10,000 in population.

Greenwald compared Varley to a plant manager with 96 employees. “What would that plant manager make?” And then figure in that Varley has to be an expert all things municipal.

But the largest consideration has to be the future of Fort Madison. Varley has said he has about eight years left in his career work, but if and when he does go, is Fort Madison positioned to be competitive in attracting the successor we need.

It’s a rarity to find even a coffee group, or card party, let alone a board, commission, council or city that agrees on every decision. But it has to be at least observed that this city is making progress under Varley’s leadership, along with the department heads at the city’s and the council’s direction. As a community, we may be divided on what we think are good and bad investments, but progress is being made nonetheless. Roads are being repaired, we’re setting ourselves up for growth with water and sewer, rebuilding our highways, building new parks, and bringing in new business.

Yeah, it was sticker shock to me, too. I just think, in very simple terms, if we want to attract top quality people to lead our city, we, at the very least, need to be competitive in that market. We’re not there at $110,000, but we’re a bit closer.

Take a closer look folks, this city’s just startin’ to percolate – but that’s Beside the Point.

About Chuck Vandenberg 5278 Articles
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