When New Haven Director of Public Works John Prokop told city officials that he planned to retire on Feb. 1, 2013, some City Hall officials began to worry that the city is ill-prepared to enter the market for a replacement.
Despite overseeing the second-largest municipality in the state, the Elm City’s director of public works currently earns the 39th-highest salary for that position of Connecticut’s 169 towns and cities. City officials said this comparatively low salary will make it difficult to attract high-caliber candidates to take over Prokop’s post. In a bid to allow the city to make competitive offers as the search for a replacement begins, Chief Administrative Officer Robert Smuts ’01 is pushing to raise the salary range for the position.
Last year, Prokop earned $98,921, a figure far below the average for directors of public works departments in Connecticut cities of comparable size. According to a statewide survey by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, the average salary for a director in Connecticut cities with a population greater than 60,000 sat at $124,140, 25 percent more than Prokop made. In fact, none of these towns paid its director of public works less than New Haven did, and some Connecticut towns with fewer than 60,000 inhabitants paid their directors more. Smuts said this salary has remained low over the years due to a tight budget.
On Aug. 27, Smuts sent a letter detailing his support for a salary range increase to Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez, president of the Board of Aldermen.
“It is clear from the facts that New Haven is very far from offering a competitive salary at present,” Smuts said in the letter. As evidence of New Haven’s inability to compete, Smuts pointed to the departure of two of the city’s deputy public works directors for higher-paying directorships in other towns. Smuts asked the Board of Aldermen to consider the director position under the “key employee” provision established in 2008, which allows for increases in pay range before the city begins the hiring process of an important official.
Smuts said he hopes that the salary will be raised by mid-October, although the motion had yet to be formally filed on Monday afternoon. In light of New Haven’s tight budget, he said he expects the board to view his proposal “skeptically” at first, but he believes that he can convince them of its importance in finding a strong replacement for Prokop.
“They’re interested in making the city work,” he said.
Ward 2 Alderman Frank Douglass Jr. and Ward 9 Alderwoman Jessica Holmes, said they had not heard of the proposal and declined to comment on whether they would support it.
Filling administrative jobs in New Haven can be difficult because of the city’s tight budget and the requirement that directors of city departments live in New Haven, Smuts said.
“Right now we’re having a very difficult time filling two open positions [in the Department of Public Works],” Smuts said.
City hall spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton ’04 said that, despite these obstacles, New Haven cannot simply lower its standards when it comes to “attract[ing] highly qualified officials.” Benton added that the city has made salary adjustments in the past in order to attract viable candidates.
In 2008, for example, the city raised the salary ceiling for the police chief to $160,000 from $115,000 in advance of the national search that ultimately brought former Chief Frank Limon to the New Haven Police Department.
Prokop, who has yet to formally announce his retirement, has held the post since 2007.