Next Administrator’s pay close to 200k

Tompkins Legislators approve raise; nix tax cap override

by Robert Lynch; June 5, 2024

Just like fixing your car or cutting your hair, the price of running your county’s government has fallen victim to inflation.

The vote: 12-0, as legislators approve the next County Administrator’s boosted salary.

By unanimous votes during each of two meetings Tuesday, Tompkins County lawmakers approved a new, higher salary for whomever it hires to succeed Lisa Holmes as Tompkins County Administrator after Holmes retires at the end of this year.  The new Administrator’s annual pay will approach $200,000.

In the same meeting at which members ratified a committee’s earlier-recommended salary increase, the full Legislature balked at approving a usually-routine local law that would permit next year’s county budget to increase its tax levy above the otherwise unenforceable “Tax Cap” that Albany accountants annually set.

The Legislature’s failure to muster the needed supermajority to allow the cap’s override provided the latest confirmation that the political class is listening to taxpayer unrest, discontent most vividly expressed by Ithaca City School District voters’ rejection in May of  their next year’s budget by an uncharacteristically hostile seven-to-three margin.

As to the Administrator’s pay, County Commissioner of Human Resources Ruby Pulliam recommended to the Legislature’s Budget, Capital, and Personnel Committee Tuesday afternoon that the Administrator’s starting salary be raised to a high-end limit of $180,000.  “It would give us a competitive edge,” Pulliam said.  “It would also allow us to put our best foot forward and hopefully save some time (in finding a successful candidate).”

H.R. Commissioner Pulliam: A higher salary “would give us a competitive edge.” And $5,000 to move is “astronomically low.”

When Lisa Holmes was elevated from Deputy Administrator to County Administrator in March 2022, Tompkins County “red-lined” the position’s pay upwards to $160,000.  The action placed the salary higher than its otherwise-specified salary grade would have provided. 

And the further increase recommended in committee Tuesday was higher than had first been planned.  A printed Resolution before the Budget Committee would have risen the new hire’s starting pay to between $165,000 and $175,000.  Committee members bumped the high-end number up an additional $5,000 at Pulliam’s request.

Several hours later, when the committee’s recommendation came to the floor of the full Legislature, the revised measure passed with little discussion.

Pulliam advised the committee that pay for successful new employees generally rises by five per cent after nine months in the job.   For Holmes’ successor, that would increase the position’s “work rate” pay to $189,000 annually.

In addition to the higher starting salary, the Legislature Tuesday provided up to $10,000 as a relocation bonus for the new Administrator.  At H.R. Commissioner Pulliam’s request, the committee doubled its relocation allowance from an earlier-proposed $5,000.

“Realistically, that is an astronomically low number,” Pulliam said of the $5,000 relocation package first proposed. 

Pressed later by the committee, the H.R. Commissioner explained that the $10,000 in moving reimbursements would exist as a ceiling, not an assurance.  Expenses would need to be documented, and temporary housing costs would not count toward reimbursement.

“I would hate to advertise a lower salary,” Pulliam told the committee, “and waste a month or two with people who are not getting applications, then starting over to increase the salary.”

Administrator Holmes: She got $160,000. Her successor will get more.

Indeed, those false starts have proven true in the recent past.  After Jason Molino resigned as County Administrator in 2021, the Legislature first bumped up the Administrator’s salary to $160,000 and launched a nationwide search.  But it came up dry on its first attempt.  The search then began its second-round.  That’s when Holmes applied and secured the promotion.

With Lisa Holmes having announced her retirement plans this past April, Tompkins County will again, as it did after Molino left, search nationwide for her successor.  That’s despite a national search’s limited success in the past.  This time, the firm Goodwin Recruiting will seek out candidates.  Goodwin will receive $55,000 for its effort; a fee computed at one-quarter of the first year’s starting salary plus the newly-raised relocation bonus.  Pulliam said the rate is standard for executive head-hunting firms.

When the committee’s recommendation reached the full Legislature, the only question came from Newfield’s Randy Brown, who asked why the head-hunter’s commission was as high as it was. (Legislators Mike Sigler and Deborah Dawson were excused at the time of the Legislature’s subsequent, otherwise-unanimous vote.)

“I’m probably a minority here, but I think this is a little too rich for my blood,” Budget Chair Mike Lane said earlier in committee that afternoon.  Lane noted that a few years ago, under Molino, the Administrator’s pay was only around $140,000.  Then it went to $160,000 under Holmes; and now up to nearly $190,000 next year, nine months after the new hire would take office. 

Mike Lane: The higher pay “is a little too rich for my blood.” he still voted yes.

“I think that’s a pretty fast increase for the County Administrator,” Lane observed.  Nevertheless, the chairman joined in the committee’s—and later the full Legislature’s—unanimous votes. 

Committee member Rich John was similarly reticent, but endorsed the recommendation after careful thought.

“I’m looking at our budget where we came in just under a quarter-billion dollars,” John reminded himself.  “We are a big operation.”  With “the responsibility entailed in that,” he reasoned, “I can live with the 180; actually 189.”

Groton’s Lee Shurtleff recalled that perhaps 25 years ago, Tompkins County was paying its Administrator only $100,000.  With three percent annual increases compounded over those decades, Shurtleff said, what’s being recommended now probably hasn’t kept up with inflation.

“We need the flexibility in order to recruit from the widest pool,” Shurtleff said in support of the salary the committee set.


During Tuesday’s committee discussion of administrative pay, Mike Lane took note of the newly-erupting taxpayer revolts. “We’re seeing feedback at school districts,” Lane said, plainly referencing budget rejections in both Ithaca and Newfield over perceived runaway school spending.  So it became ironic that later in the day, Lane proved the most ardent defender of the proposed Tompkins County local law that would override New York State’s so-called “two per cent tax cap” within the County’s own next year’s budget.

Mike Sigler: A vote to override the tax cap “does send a signal,” the wrong one.

The tax cap override has been a routine ritual of government.  The override law has been adopted most every year, yet seldom invoked.   It’s been used only once.  State law requires a supermajority of nine legislators for the local law to pass.  Tuesday, it fell one vote short.  All of its supporters were Democrats.

“I vote against this every year,” Republican legislator Mike Sigler—also a candidate for State Senate— stated proudly.  “And I would like to note that the public is 100 per cent against this.”

“I think it does send a signal that we are open to kind of raising taxes,” Sigler warned of the override.  He said it’s a vote that can be taken later, not now, and done so when the Legislature gets closer to adopting its budget this fall and finds the higher levy necessary.

At a “budget retreat” in late-April, legislators directed Administrator Holmes to keep next year’s tax levy increase no higher than this year’s levy rise of two per cent.  Holmes said that such a limit would force spending cuts, as maintaining current service levels would push the levy up by 5.9 per cent.

“I think the message is out there that we are going to keep our tax rate as low as possible and keep our levy as low as possible, and I want to continue with that message,” Sigler stated.

Before votes were recorded, Sigler left to attend his daughter’s high school music concert.  And while no one expects Sigler would change his mind were Tuesday’s rejection ever to be reconsidered, another absent member’s vote could be in play.  Deborah Dawson was also away that meeting night.  It’s believed she’d support the tax override.  And she could raise the issue again, providing she attends the Legislature’s next meeting June 18th and seeks reconsideration then.

For what it’s worth, Mike Lane complained after the vote that had he known how close Tuesday’s vote would be, he’d have changed his position before the final tally so that he could have sought reconsideration later.

I don’t think this is the year to be dramatically raising taxes,” Greg Mezey, one of only two Democrats to oppose the override, told the Legislature.  “It seems kind of unnecessary to me.”

Mezey stated that in his opinion, Tompkins County can weather “whatever storm may come our way.”  And he also acknowledged that some believe Tompkins County has “in excess of $30 Million” of savings—previous tax collections—in its own fund balance.

“I see no reason to pass this tonight,” Mezey said.

Among those legislators representing Enfield, Anne Koreman voted in favor of the override; Randy Brown opposed it.