Raises for Mount Airy police officers and/or other municipal employees is a key budget issue this year for the city commissioners, one of whom is adamant about not granting an across-the-board increase for all 170 positions.
Instead, Commissioner Jon Cawley favors some plan whereby workers who are the lowest paid receive salary hikes, with those at the upper end of the scale bypassed in light of the sums they’re already earning.
“I think there needs to be some kind of a ceiling,” Cawley said last Wednesday during a budget update meeting when proposed salary increases for the upcoming fiscal year on July 1 dominated the discussion.
It mainly centered on a plan to hike the pay of sworn Mount Airy police officers, particularly that of new hires from $29,000 to 35,000 annually in order to attract more applicants and reduce ongoing vacancies.
Supporters of this have said that any apparent favoritism displayed toward police can be offset by the increased dangers they face on the streets compared to other municipal employees.
Cutoff point urged
But possible salary increases for other municipal personnel also was viewed as a priority by Commissioner Steve Yokeley Wednesday. He said a three-phase process that began last year to reach an overall 11-percent mark should be continued this year. The board has been told this was needed to bring city workers’ pay more in line with similarly sized communities.
“We always talk about what other people are doing — and most of the time I think that’s a waste,” Cawley said in countering the 11-percent objective. He explained that it involves an apples-to-oranges situation because municipalities operate differently from place to place.
Cawley voted against the 2016-2017 city budget last June which contained a 3-percent raise for all personnel, and said during Wednesday’s meeting he objects to any further across-the-board hikes because it doesn’t benefit lower-paid employees.
“It’s a mistake then and it’s a mistake now if we don’t find a way to deal with this,” the North Ward commissioner said of the pay issue.
Cawley pointed out that a 3-percent raise to someone earning $60,000 per year amounts to twice as much as the person making $30,000, and argued that there should be some kind of allowance for this.
The prevailing philosophy in such matters is that when lower-end workers receive a raise, there should be some adjustment for those further up the scale to prevent hurt feelings or what is known as “salary compression.” It can occur when new employees receive pay similar to or higher than their more experienced colleagues in the same position.
However, Cawley thinks an employee earning $50,000 or more should not care about a raise for someone in the $30,000 range.
“At some point, compression doesn’t matter,” he said. “At 60,000, you ought to be OK.”
That also includes the Mount Airy Police Department pay, according to Cawley, with board members as a whole having voiced support for increasing salaries for all sworn officers — who number 41 at full strength. The cost for this has been put at nearly $400,000.
Cawley said, in reference to bringing starting officers pay to $35,000 from $29,000, that he would be in favor of giving a “bump” to present department members with salaries in the mid-30s range.
However, he doesn’t believe this should apply to those earning $42,000 or more.
“We’ll fight it out”
One budget option presented to the commissioners Wednesday would only up the starting police pay to $35,000 while not giving raises to all sworn personnel.
Also under that option, no other city employees would receive raises in the next fiscal year’s budget.
However, the commissioners did not vote on any of the options presented to them Wednesday, with Commissioner Shirley Brinkley joining Yokeley in expressing support for increasing the salaries for all city departments.
That could balloon the 2017-2018 budget and possibly require a property tax increase from the present 48 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.
As it stands now, City Manager Barbara Jones will present a budget proposal in May “and then we’ll fight it out,” one commissioner said.
Cawley, who has expressed concerned about Mount Airy’s ability to sustain salary increases on a long-term basis, believes city officials need to start thinking outside the box on that and other budgetary matters.
“I hear that phrase a lot,” he acknowledged, “but we haven’t got out of any boxes.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.