City budget OK’d 4-1 in raise dispute

City budget details are debated Thursday by commissioners, from left, Jon Cawley, Jim Armbrister and Shirley Brinkley.

Mount Airy officials adopted a city budget for 2015-2016 without a property tax hike Thursday morning, but with some spirited discussions related to compensation for municipal employees.

One point of contention among the board of commissioners was a 3 percent cost-of-living raise for full-time city personnel, representing a cost of $225,656 for the municipal payroll of 172 employees.

“I can’t vote for it with a three percent raise,” Commissioner Shirley Brinkley said as the lone dissenter regarding the budget for the next fiscal year to begin on July 1.

The action occurred during a workshop at the Municipal Building, an annual session held after the proposed city spending plan is released — which, based on a pattern of recent years, has ended with a final vote after various board concerns are discussed.

Brinkley explained that she is opposed to “across-the-board” raises for all employees,” instead favoring the implementation of a merit pay system that rewards those doing a good job.

“An across-the-board pay raise is not fair to anyone,” Brinkley said, reading from two pages of prepared remarks she brought to Thursday’s workshop which were directed toward City Manager Barbara Jones.

“I have heard you say many times that you have an excellent staff and department heads and they work hard and do a good job — I agree with you,” Brinkley continued.

“But Barbara, this is what they are hired to — a good job — otherwise they should not be here.”

Brinkley mentioned research showing that other governmental units are not proposing hikes as high as 3 percent. “The county and the state have a larger population than we do and have asked for smaller pay increases.”

The dissenting commissioner, who is up for re-election this year, went on to say that she believes city workers are adequately compensated as a whole, while acknowledging there could be some political fallout from her position on salaries.

“Sometimes you wind up looking like the bad guy in this,” the first-term incumbent said.

Thursday’s budget action by the commissioners ensures the 3 percent hike, on top of a 2 percent cost-of-living raise for the present fiscal year and the two before that. However, in two recent budget years — 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 — municipal workers got no increases at all.

Commissioner Jon Cawley also expressed concern Thursday about the pay raise, although he did ultimately vote for the budget including that increase.

Cawley said he was hesitant about giving all employees the raise, saying he supports it for those on the lower end of the scale. “I could jump on that in a minute,” he said, but applying the hike on the upper end is where the dollars get “stretched.”

“I’m not the enemy of city employees,” Cawley said, but he pointed out that public school personnel and coaches often go without raises even though taxpayer money is involved, just as it is with municipal workers’ pay.

Cawley further cited the cost of city personnel — $9.68 million, a large chunk of the budget — who provide services but do not manufacture any products. “If everybody did what we did, there wouldn’t be an economy,” he said of that proportion.

401k plan nixed

While approving the budget with the 3 percent raise for city workers, the board voted 4-1 against a motion by Commissioner Jim Armbrister to reinstate a program in which the municipality provided contributions to employee 401k plans across the board.

A similar program was phased out several years ago for everyone except sworn police officers, who under state law must receive a match of 5 percent of their salaries — representing a budget allocation of $83,952 for this fiscal year.

Armbrister’s plan called for a 3 percent 401k match for all city workers, which would have cost $145,740. He later said he would be agreeable to a 2 percent match of $97,160.

He believes this would be another tool to help the city government acquire and maintain good personnel and better compete with other localities he said have better benefit packages overall.

“We’ve got the money,” Armbrister said. “It’s not about spending, it’s about taking care of people.”

He did lobby successfully Thursday for a personnel study that will explore salary, benefits and other issues raised.

Tax rate intact

This new budget includes general fund appropriations of about $13.8 million and $6.2 million for the water and sewer segment that operates separately from other city government operations.

This is comparable to the levels of the 2014-2015 budget adopted in June 2014, a general fund portion totaling just over $13 million and a water-sewer budget of $5,754,296.

A tax hike had been threatened due to the outlook for a tight budget year, but the property tax rate will remain at 48 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

This halts — at least temporarily — a trend that has seen the rate slashed by a total of 10 cents over the past five years and 15 cents since 2008, including a 4-cent reduction for 2014-2015.

The spending plan calls for using about $2.2 million from the municipality’s general fund balance, or savings, with $11.7 million available for appropriation at last report. However, it is not known how much, if any, of that actually will be needed.

Another $709,412 in city water and sewer operation reserve funds is allocated for that segment.

A capital outlay budget of slightly more than $1 million is included for major building- and equipment-related expenditures.

Money is earmarked for the financing of a new fire truck that will cost about $450,000, through annual debt-service payments of $95,700 over a five-year window. However, city officials hope to reduce those payments to about $45,000 through a 10-year zero-percent interest loan program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Among other capital needs to be funded include three police vehicles to maintain a present rotation; heating, ventilation and air-conditioning upgrades; storm-drainage replacement; updates to playground equipment; and the replacement of Nautilus equipment at Reeves Community Center.

Special-agency appropriations also will be maintained at a total of $205,150, which includes yearly city allocations to Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, the Surry Arts Council, the public library and the Mount Airy Rescue Squad.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

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