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Tucson gives City Manager Mike Ortega a $50k raise, new 2-year contract
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Tucson gives City Manager Mike Ortega a $50k raise, new 2-year contract

  • City Manager Mike Ortega talking about a rental assistance program in August, 2021.
    Bennito L. Kelty/TucsonSentinel.comCity Manager Mike Ortega talking about a rental assistance program in August, 2021.

City Manager Mike Ortega will see a $50,000 raise in his annual salary after the Tucson City Council agreed at a regular meeting last Tuesday to renew his two-year contract and start paying the top administrator $300,000 a year.

After seven years as the Cochise County administrator, Ortega was hired by Mayor Jonathan Rothschild in April 2015 with a base salary of $210,000 plus benefits such as a $10,000 annual payment into Ortega’s retirement account, an unmarked vehicle with unrestricted use, a bi-weekly allowance, 120 days of paid vacation and 40 days of paid sick leave.

A year later, Ortega’s contract changed to include a two-year rolling automatic renewal unless the mayor and City Council fire him before it automatically rolls over in October or if they notify him that they won’t renew his contract.

Tucson continued to raise Ortega’s salary every year since 2018, with the exception of 2021. The city manager’s salary went up to $225,000 in 2018 and was set to get two $5,000 bumps in 2019 and 2020 if Ortega had a successful performance evaluation those years.

For 2022, Ortega’s base salary was set to be $244,275, or about $117 an hour, according to Tucson’s compensation plan for the previous fiscal year, which went into effect in mid-2021.

His vacation and sick leave benefits were also changed in 2018 so that he could accrue eight hours of vacation and six hours of sick leave each pay period. Ortega can now build up as much as 60 days of paid vacation with no limit on sick leave. If he reaches his limit, any newly accrued vacation time goes to his sick leave, and he has to be compensated for all banked up paid leave if he leaves the job or gets fired.

Ortega is the highest-paid Tucson city official out of the more than 5,000 people who work for the city. Many of those employees work for him, though indirectly, as his job is to oversee almost everything that the city does including its services. He also manages the city budget and plays a leading role in its drafting.

Mayor Regina Romero, as the top elected official, makes $42,000 a year as base salary while her colleagues on the City Council each make $24,000 annually. Including the mayor and the six council members, Ortega will now make $114,000 more than all of Tucson’s top elected officials earn from their city salaries combined.

The top administrators at Pima County have made similar salaries. First-year County Administrator Jan Lesher makes $260,000 while her predecessor and former boss Chuck Huckelberry was making just over $300,000, both of those being base salaries with various additional compensations tacked on. 

Public jobs in higher education pay much more. The current contract of Lee Lambert, the chancellor of Pima Community College, ensures him a $334,000 base salary, and when he was hired in 2019, his base salary was set at more than $290,000. Robert Robbins, president of the University of Arizona, makes more than $1,000,000 in total compensation.

Romero thanked Ortega for his “years of service to the community” and commended him for having “put together an incredible team” of top administrators, she said at the Tuesday meeting.

“You are doing incredibly, as well as mentoring the future leadership team in our city,” she said to Ortega who was sitting with recent hires Anna Rosenberry, the city CFO and assistant city manager, and John Kmiec, the new Tucson Water Director.

City Council is “lucky to have (Ortega) for another budget cycle,” East Side Councilman Paul Cunningham said at the regular meeting last Tuesday. Midtown Councilman Steve Kozachik told Ortega to "buy your wife something expensive" before voting in favor of the pay bump.

Tucson has a $150 million budget surplus. A city spokesperson said Ortega’s raise is a result of a better financial outlook for the Old Pueblo and good work by the city manager. Ortega told the City Council at the beginning of budget talks that Tucson’s finances look “very good” heading into the new fiscal year.

Like Mike

Michael John Ortega, who speaks in a mild tone and wears a serious expression as often as he wears his glasses, started his current public service career in 1994 as a civil engineer working for the city where he was born, the border town of Douglas, Ariz.

He worked both as an engineer and as the director of the Douglas Public Works Department, where he was responsible for the department’s budget and services, including street maintenance, sanitation, parks and cemetery, and water and wastewater management, according to his resumé.

Ortega graduated from the University of Arizona first with a Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1984 and then with a Master’s of Business Administration in 1995, the year he left the city of Douglas.

After getting his MBA, Ortega went on to work at the Arizona Department of Transportation as a state engineer assistant director. In that role, he was supposed to manage 6,700 miles of state highways and 2,100 employees, but he left the job less than eight months in to become the city manager of Douglas for 12 years from 1995 to 2007.

He went from there to his role as the top administrator of Cochise County, the box-shaped jurisdiction Southeast of Pima County. He then came to Tucson and was hired at a time when Romero was still the councilwoman of Ward 1.

As the 27th city manager of Tucson, Ortega is the longest-serving in that role since Joel Valdez, who died a few months ago. The milestone should have been easy for Ortega to reach, as he stepped into his role at a time when Tucson was struggling to find a city manager willing to stay in the position for more than four years.

Valdez served for more than 16 years as city manager from 1974 to 1990. Only three other Tucson city managers have served seven or more years since the position was created via resolution in 1915, according to the Pima County Library.

R.E. Butler was the city manager for more than nine years from from 1931 to 1940 and Porter Homer served in the role for more than seven years from 1955 to 1962. Phil Martin, Jr. served on and off as both the acting and appointed city manager for more than 10 years, giving him the longest tenure before Valdez and the second longest overall.

Ortega also worked for a few consulting firms and for Pima County after he graduated from the UA in the 1980s. He even lived in Southern California for a brief spell, but “missed Tucson the whole time,” he said in a 2015 video interview shortly after his hiring. Now in his 60s, Ortega has four children plus a few grandchildren.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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