Chester receiver says city officials gave themselves raises ‘yet again,’ intends to go court

Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland speaks at Chester’s City Hall. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland speaks at Chester’s City Hall. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Chester’s state-appointed receiver, Michael Doweary, says he intends to go all the way to Commonwealth Court after accusing city officials, including Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland, of increasing their own salaries in violation of the city’s amended fiscal recovery plan.

“The recovery plan was adopted by the courts. Everything should continue to move forward. We fast-forward to completing the 2022 budget — and here we are, with City Council and the mayor and the controller giving themselves raises yet again,” Doweary said.

In late 2018, Chester City Council increased Kirkland’s salary to $75,000 from $41,000 and the salaries of several council members and the city controller to $60,000 from $35,000. The action occurred prior to Gov. Tom Wolf’s placing Chester under receivership in 2020, but the salary increases took effect in 2020.

According to Doweary’s timeline of events, during the 2021 budget process city officials and the receiver reached a deal and agreed to lower the salaries by $10,000. That reduction would not have affected council members still making $35,000.

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The deal, known as Initiative WF27, was included in the city’s amended recovery plan in April 2021. Commonwealth Court approved the plan in June 2021. But during the 2022 budget process, which occurred in December, the city pushed to reinstate the raises — against the receiver’s orders.

On Dec. 29, the City Council passed the 2022 budget and reinstated the initial raises. The receiver’s stance is that city officials must follow the plan, so he intends to file for a writ of mandamus from Commonwealth Court once a new judge is appointed on the matter.

The receiver’s office is insisting on the salary increases being addressed, asserting that for the city to find a way out of financial peril, it needs significant buy-in from city labor unions and retirees — possibly in the form of givebacks.

“And it becomes extremely hard to ask for that type of assistance when elected officials have increased their salaries so substantially,” said Vijay Kapoor, the chief of staff to the receiver.

In an interview Thursday with WHYY News, Kirkland pushed back on Doweary and Kapoor. He took offense at the prospect of legal action, which he believes will waste time and money.

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“You’re supposed to be here to help us financially, not to attack us politically,” Kirkland said.

The mayor said the officials tasked with rescuing the financially sinking city “have been very misleading in their comments.”

“Let me be clear, we voluntarily — voluntarily for one year — said to the receiver and his chief of staff that we would give back $10,000 of our very own salaries for one year. We did that. No one twisted our arms. We did that voluntarily for one year,” Kirkland said.

The receiver’s team rejected the notion that the salary reduction was agreed on for only one year. Kapoor referred to the phrase “new salary going forward” on page 83 of the Amended Receiver’s Recovery Plan as evidence of it being “clear that this was not a one-time action.”

“The document was shared with the city before this. They had the opportunity to object. They objected on one term. That was not this — and it was passed. So we’re a little bit confused as to this argument, that somehow this was only for one year. It most certainly was not. I was part of the negotiations,” Kapoor said.

Kapoor added that other city employees were in the dark about the raises.

“One of the issues with Chester is, prior to receivership, the agendas didn’t really tell you a lot of what was going to be in the council meeting. So it would have a one-sentence description of what would be on there. But you know, if there were resolutions to be considered, and otherwise, they actually wouldn’t attach those to the council agenda. So the public wouldn’t be able to see it, which is obviously problematic,” Kapoor said.

Kirkland said that is not the case and that every meeting is publicized. He went on to add that he rejected the city’s insurance for years after he was initially elected, and that he is always giving back to the city and the community. Whatever money he receives from the city in the form of salary is spent in the city, the mayor said.

Chester residents deserve to know what salaries the receiver and his team — who are state employees — make, Kirkland said.

The issue, one of many ongoing battles between the receiver and city officials, won’t be resolved until a new Commonwealth Court judge is selected to fill the vacancy of Judge Drew Crompton, who was up for election in 2021 and lost his race.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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