About a dozen police officers watched Wednesday as city council members debated a raise for Mount Airy law enforcement personnel as part of budget discussions for the upcoming fiscal year — which might include a property tax hike.
The officers — patrol personnel, detectives and others — elected to use a scheduled day off to attend the budget update meeting that had been requested earlier this month by Commissioner Jim Armbrister, himself a retired lieutenant with the Mount Airy Police Department.
“We’re here for the department in general, not necessarily for the raises,” Sgt. Brandon Evans explained.
“It’s neat to see, really,” Armbrister said of the officers attending the meeting.
Their presence Wednesday was unexpected, necessitating a move from a small conference room where the session originally was scheduled to a larger one at the Municipal Building.
And that proved to be time well spent, as the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners — while making no official decisions — collectively seemed to favor a salary increase for the city’s sworn police officer force, which at full strength numbers 41.
There are now six vacancies among that total, although three people have been approved as temporary municipal employees while receiving Basic Law Enforcement Training in preparation for joining the force.
Faced with ongoing vacancies for the past few years, the commissioners decided this winter that they wanted to hike the starting police pay from the present $29,000 to the $35,000 range as a way to increase applicants.
In addition, the commissioners then directed City Manager Barbara Jones to develop a general fund budget for the municipality’s 2017-2018 fiscal year, to start on July 1, which does not exceed $12 million. That’s more than $2 million less than the adjusted budget for the present fiscal year.
The commissioners’ directive also included providing funding for the law enforcement raises in the budget and for Jones to try do so without an increase in property taxes and cutting services to citizens.
Lean option not embraced
Wednesday’s budget meeting attended by the police proved to be a time for the city manager to report to the council on how all that could be accomplished — presenting it with multiple options to consider.
However, the board could not reach a consensus on any of those options as written — and at the end of the meeting lasting more than three hours, support also was expressed for funding raises for other city workers.
This would undermine the directive for the $12 million spending plan for the next fiscal year by taking it to the $14 million range, while also requiring a property-tax increase and using money from the city’s fund balance, or reserves.
The leanest option presented by Jones Wednesday which would provide salary increases for all sworn police officers was for a proposed budget totaling about $12.2 million — close to what the commissioners had directed, faced with revenues expected to be around $11.5 million.
Yet when faced with what that option requires, board members seemed reluctant to embrace it or similarly austere measures.
While the $12.2 million budget package does include a pay raise for all sworn police department members, an expenditure that has been put at nearly $400,000 — excluding telecommunications and other office personnel — there’s no increase for other city employees.
It also calls for laying off nine employees among other city departments; removing a marketing director position that had been approved for the present fiscal year; decreasing overtime pay by $100,000, affecting the ability of fire, police and public works personnel to man events such as the Autumn Leaves Festival;
Also, decreased funding for city sports league officials; and eliminating appropriations to outside agencies including the Surry Arts Council, city library, Mount Airy Museum of Regional History and the Mount Airy Rescue Squad, a $218,550 expense this year.
And no major capital projects, relating to facilities or equipment, are forecast under that scenario.
More pay for all?
The city commissioners as a whole did not seem willing to support what might be considered drastic changes, and instead there was movement toward a costlier budget incorporating pay raises for all municipal personnel.
Commissioner Steve Yokeley said this is needed to fulfill a promise made to city workers last year. That’s when a statewide survey of the North Carolina League of Municipalities from 2015 showed that about an 11 percent pay increase would be needed to bring Mount Airy’s 170-member payroll up to the average for cities of comparable size.
The commissioners believed in 2016 that spending $800,000 to accomplish this was too much for one year, and decided to break the increases into phases — including a 3-percent across-the-board raise for 2016-2017.
Yokeley said he favored the hikes for police. “But we’ve already promised the (other) city employees,” he added of continuing the increases for them.
“I think we need to be consistent with what we said we would do,” Yokeley said. “I think we need to follow through.”
And while other commissioners seemed OK with not hiring a marketing person, Yokeley wasn’t.
“The marketing director, I think, is critical,” he said. “It shouldn’t be considered an expense, but an investment.”
That individual’s responsibilities would include trying to recruit new businesses to town, marketing Mount Airy’s surplus water supply, writing grants and other functions that theoretically would make the position self-supporting.
“And I don’t see how we can not fund the special-agency requests,” Yokeley said of entities such as the museum and rescue squad, saying this at least should be maintained at present levels.
Yokeley’s stance drew a sharp reaction Wednesday from Commissioner Jon Cawley:
“Steve, you often talk about what you want to spend, but do you have any ideas about how to raise revenues?”
Yokeley said he believes that slashing property tax rates during the past decade, from 63 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to the present 48 cents, in hindsight was probably a mistake concerning the revenue impact.
“The future is now,” he said. “This board has to pay for what was done then.”
Commissioner Shirley Brinkley said she would support a hike now.
“I don’t have a problem with raising taxes if that’s what it would take to get these officers raises,” she said of police personnel in the room and their fellow officers. Brinkley added that she could support this in the name of public safety and “for these guys to live a little better.”
Based on Wednesday’s comments, the city manager is expected to return with another spending plan for all raises and other considerations as part of her ongoing budget preparations.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.