The Ridgewood Patch

By James Kleimann

Under a torrent of opposition from members of the public and one councilman, the village council approved a salary increase to Village Manager Ken Gabbert that represents a 12 percent raise over a 13-month period.

Councilman Paul Aronsohn staunchly opposed the move, which will see Gabbert’s salary increase from $165,000 in November of 2009 to $185,000 retroactive to January of 2011.

“These are tough times,” Aronsohn said. “A 12 percent increase in salary might be unprecedented not just in Bergen County and in New Jersey, but might be nationwide.” 

After large-scale layoffs in 2010 and a subsequent rehiring; a fixing of salaries to non-union employees with bonus options; and new deals with the two biggest unions with comparably small raises, Aronsohn said he found the new salary figure “surreal.”

“I don’t get it and I don’t support it,” he said.

The other four members of the council took a different stance on the raise, which had been negotiated in closed session over the past several months.

Gabbert inherited a poor fiscal situation and has turned the ship around, council members say

“He has saved the taxpayers of this village hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last year alone,” Councilman Stephen Wellinghorst said of Gabbert, whose salary increased in 2010 from $165,000 to $173,000.

Under Gabbert’s watch, Wellinghorst said he has seen the village move in “a better fiscal direction” than it has in recent memory. The other council members all praised Gabbert in their speeches for his performance after inheriting a “poor fiscal situation.”

“I think we came to a sound, reasonable conclusion and we are willing to live with it,” Wellinghorst said.

Councilwoman Bernadette Walsh, Mayor Keith Killion, Deputy Mayor Tom Riche and Councilman Wellinghorst voted in favor of the raise.

Walsh cited several reasons she felt Gabbert was deserving, notably in concessions made by the two most prominent unions in recent negotiations, which she says will yield over $200,000 per fireman and police officer over their expected lifetimes.

“I agree in principle [to] not increasing the tax burden on residents in these tough economic times,” Walsh said. “However, there’s a practical business issue at hand which everyone needs to understand.”

It is important for the council and village manager “not to create a disincentive” for unionized labor to move to non-union management positions, she said.

“The lifeblood of our town comes from employees working here and striving for management in the village.”

Killion noted that in 2009, the previous Village Manager Jim Ten Hoeve was clearing over $200,000 a year, yet he heard no complaints from residents or other council members at the time. He also said he found it “surprising” that no council member voiced objections to the unions receiving raises.

“I’m in favor of zero percent raises but if not everyone is going to get that, why reward one and not the other for doing the same things?” the mayor asked.

Councilman asks: shouldn’t residents have had a voice in the matter?

In addition to arguing that there are “substantive problems” with the raise, Aronsohn raised issue with the process.

The memorandum of understanding vote was placed on the agenda Tuesday night and there was no public comment before the vote, which the councilman said denied the public a right to consider what he called an important decision. Aronsohn moved to delay the vote, but found his colleagues not in agreement.

“My opinion is that the council makes the determination to the negotiation and salary increase for the village manager,” said Walsh in opposition to Aronsohn’s request that the resolution be delayed. “I don’t know that the public’s input would need [to be heard].”

Aronsohn shot back, “I couldn’t disagree more with this notion…that this is not the public’s business, that we alone decide as the governing body.”

“They are paying the salaries, they are paying the bills,” he said of the citizens. “They have every say in the world.”

Wellinghorst stated that while it’s certainly the council’s decision to negotiate salaries, the residents have their say at the ballot box. (The seats of Aronsohn, Wellinghorst and Killion are up in spring of 2012, unless the council decides to extend terms until the fall.)

Citizens speak out against raise

The voting public fell in line with Aronsohn’s views on Wednesday night.

“I think by approving this increase you people on the board are certainly not doing your job,” charged resident Richie Henrik. “I think it warrants almost a recall effort to get you the hell out of there. You’re giving the town’s money away which is not warranted at this time, in this economic environment.”

Former Fire Chief Jim Bombace, who has clashed with Gabbert in recent meetings, said as an ex-employee of the village and as a lifelong citizen, he’s worked with several village managers, some he’d qualify as exceptional and others, less than exceptional.

“In my opinion, Dr. Gabbert is not an exceptional manager” and is not deserving of the raise, he said.

Others said Gabbert may be the right man for the job, but the timing of the raise is all wrong.

“If times were good and the economy were rolling like it did in the 90s, it probably wouldn’t be a problem,” said frequent council-goer Roger Wiegand. “But now is not the time.”

Gabbert responds to criticisms

Reached for comment at the conclusion of the meeting, Gabbert spoke of what he believed to be accomplishments during his near two-year tenure as Village Manager in Ridgewood. Gabbert oversees a village with around 350 employees, 14 departments and a $52 million budget.

“The union agreements are long-term good-for-the-village, good-for-the-residents agreements,” he told reporters. Overall, he said he felt he and the council inherited “difficulties,” but changes have been positive. ”It’s an ongoing process. We’re not over the financial issues.”

When asked to respond to comments that residents are struggling, in many cases unemployed, and his increase is unwarranted, Gabbert said residents are “always out of work.”

“Families are always having a difficult time,” he said. “A manager can sit there and not make cuts, not reduce the budget, do the status quo or you can take aggressive action. In my case reduce the staffing, [make] major structural changes to departments and make changes long term for the better.”

“I don’t fault the residents for standing up at all. That’s their right,” he said. 

Asked if he felt there was a degree of hypocrisy that union negotiations have been held at or under 4 percent in raises and other non-union are capped with zero percent salary raises, Gabbert said it was an “apples and oranges” comparison.

“I’m not unionized, I’m an individual. I serve at the pleasure of the council. There is no union representation, no lifetime health insurance, no 20 years and then you retire.”

“I consider this my family,” the Upper Saddle River resident said. “This is the town [where] I spend my life, blood and energy.”

The payments, to be doled out bi-weekly, are likely to begin in November.