A pay increase for city employees was the main focus during a public hearing Thursday night on Mount Airy’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year.
Citizen comments ranged from the idea that those workers are deserving of extra money, to the notion that municipal personnel already are treated well — including more benefits and perks than the average local citizen.
The preliminary budget for 2016-2017 also includes a proposed 4-percent increase in water and sewer rates and a new $15 tax on every vehicle registered in the city.
But the raise included in the spending plan drew the most comments, pro and con, at Thursday night’s public hearing during a meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners. The preliminary budget contains funding to begin bringing municipal workers up to an average level reflected in a municipal salary survey for the state, with no specific percentage figure is listed.
A personnel study earlier this year using figures from the North Carolina League of Municipalities indicated that Mount Airy’s 172 employees are underpaid compared to those in other localities with similar populations. A 12-percent increase in the present payroll level would be required to bring local employees up to average, the study showed.
Allen Burton was a citizen who offered a pro-raise point of view during Thursday night’s hearing.
“I believe that a city or business is only as good as their employees,” said Burton. He added that municipal personnel should be rewarded for their efforts that often go above and beyond the call of duty, such as public works crews being summoned in the middle of the night for utility emergencies in freezing conditions.
“There’s no way you could put a dollar amount on that,” Burton said. “Some things you can’t measure.”
The hearing speaker told the commissioners that city workers are a loyal group who are well-trained and if they all left, “I guarantee it would cost you millions of dollars” to replace them.
Paul Eich, a citizen who spoke against the salary increase, said he wanted to address the issue with a “look at the facts, not emotions.”
Eich pointed to one reason cited by City Manager Barbara Jones in her budget message for seeking the increase: “to retain our quality employees and to be competitive in recruiting new employees.”
However, Eich countered that there has been no mad rush by municipal personnel for higher-paying jobs elsewhere. “I don’t see anyone walking out the door.”
Instead, Eich said there is little turnover, which he credited to the benefits city workers have compared to those in the private sector. This includes generous insurance and retirement benefits, among others.
“They have a good retirement plan by most standards,” Eich said, which allows many to retire from age 50 to 55 and still maintain a good chunk of what they were paid.
“There’s almost no one in the private sector that has anything approaching that,” the hearing speaker continued, also pointing to additional benefits city personnel have which far exceed what other workers receive.
“We’re making them a second class of citizens in this area,” Eich said of municipal employees.
He said they have received three cost-of-living increases in recent years, of 2, 3 and 2 percent.
Eich also says that regardless of the League of Municipalities study, Mount Airy spends a higher total per capita on personnel than other cities and towns in North Carolina, based on data from the state treasurer’s office which is said to be more reliable.
The proposed new $15 vehicle tax also was criticized by Eich, who said it was not needed and because of the fact that once a tax is implemented, it almost never is repealed.
As of July 1 — when the 2016-2017 fiscal year begins — all North Carolina municipalities will have the authority to levy a tax of up to $30 per registered vehicle in accordance with state law, as a way to create new revenue for infrastructure needs.
Of the $15 proposed for Mount Airy, $5 would be unrestricted — meaning it could be put into the general fund — with the other $10 to go toward maintaining, repairing, constructing and improving public streets that are not on the state highway system.
Eich believes that if money for streets is lacking it should be diverted from funding included in the budget for a makeover of Market Street, which would cost $154,800 to $274,200, based on earlier estimates.
Conceptual plans for the elaborate project call for bistro tables; benches; granite curbing for islands; planters, trees and other landscaping features; asphalt resurfacing of badly worn pavement; decorative signage; attractive lighting such as lampposts, possibly powered by unobtrusive underground lines; painted walkways; and removable bollards, which are short vertical posts used to protect exposed structures or objects from damage by moving vehicles.
“I certainly don’t believe Market Street needs that glowing quarter-million-dollar renovation,” Eich commented.
If the city government lacks money for streets as a whole, he has a solution: “Take it out of the Market Street plan.”
Letter draws complaint
Also during Thursday’s public hearing, Mayor David Rowe read aloud a letter from another citizen, John Pritchard, who could not attend the meeting and asked the mayor to relay his written comments.
In the letter, Pritchard is critical of the proposed salary increase, the vehicle tax and the water-sewer rate hike.
However, the reading of the letter drew some criticism of its own.
“I would like to register my objection to the letter being read tonight,” Commissioner Steve Yokeley said afterward. Yokeley explained that he welcomes comments by Pritchard, but said the letter contained comments Pritchard has made in the past and which recently were published in a newspaper letter to the editor.
A precedent for reading such a letter during a public hearing was set during a commissioners meeting on May 19, when citizens commented on a proposed hotel for animals in downtown Mount Airy. Rowe relayed a letter from a neighboring business owner who could not attend that meeting.
“I guess (reading) the letter from John is something I said I would do,” Rowe explained after Yokeley registered his objection Thursday, a complaint supported by Commissioner Dean Brown.
Rowe admitted that he was uncertain about reading the letter, but based on that feedback he would not entertain any similar requests in the future, telling Yokeley:
“Steve, you won’t hear anything like that again.”
No vote occurred Thursday night on the budget, with final action expected later this month.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.