Council opts for raises

Sean C. Morgan

The Sweet Home City Council voted 4-2 Tuesday to allow employees not represented by unions to receive a 3-percent wage increase in 2012-13 based on merit.

The vote followed the 4-2 failure of a motion to freeze their wages.

Voting to allow the wage increases were Greg Mahler, Mayor Craig Fentiman, Ron Rodgers and Mike Hall. Voting to freeze wages were Scott McKee Jr. and Marybeth Angulo. Jim Gourley was absent.

The non-represented employees will receive the same increase as general city employees: The addition of a new 3-percent step and the removal of the lowest step from the five-step salary schedule. Employees may advance one step annually, based on a positive evaluation. It is the second year of this arrangement. Twelve employees are affected.

The council adopted a resolution granting the raises in July 2011. Following discussion at the Budget Committee level earlier this month, the council picked it up during its regular meeting on May 21.

City Manager Craig Martin said the increase for non-represented personnel would actually cost the city $17,794 in 2012-13. A Budget Committee member had estimated it at $26,000.

“We’ve all incurred increases in our lives,” said city employee Dianna Huenergardt, who is among general employees who will receive the increase under contract and not subject to the freeze proposal. “I don’t think that just because we’re paid by tax dollars we should be told we can’t have an increase in our wages.

“When you have to increase wages, you raise your prices.”

Businesses have to do those things to pay their employees, she said.

She asked the councilors whether they would be willing to give up their stipends, estimating they added up to about $6,300 per year.

Former Mayor Dave Holly told the council that the problem with wages in the city was a resolution adopted in the late 1990s requiring that the city pay its supervisors at a set percentage above the represented employees.

Budget Committee Chairman Chuck Bagley told the council that the city needs to take care of its lead people. The last thing the city and council want is for key employees to leave because they feel disrespected, he said. The supervisors and department heads know their departments intimately, and they can efficiently prioritize budget dollars to impact the public the least. Even hiring the best new personnel, there’s still a learning curve on top of the cost of cashing out employees who might resign, resulting in significantly reduced savings, he said.

Tim Riley, a represented employee, acknowledged that these are “trying times,” but reminded the council that experienced employees have value.

“Not just money – mandates and regulations cost a lot,” he said. “I think sometimes we forget it’s employees keeping the infrastructure of the city operating. It’s the managers of those employees that keep the money flowing so that can happen. We need to keep the city working.”

Police Chief Bob Burford warned, on behalf of his two sergeants and administrative assistant, that higher wages elsewhere could cause employees to leave their jobs. The cost in his department would be $60,000 to $80,000 if one of them did leave.

“I don’t want us to be shortsighted,” he said, although he hasn’t had anyone tell him they were planning to leave if there were a freeze.

Burford is working under contract and is not affected by the proposed increase.

McKee took issue with the idea that someone might leave over a few hundred dollars after looking at comparable salaries at other Linn County agencies.

Burford said that “$448 a month is a big chunk of change. You 3can’t just dismiss it. We’re not going to be at the top, but I don’t think you can sneeze at $448 per month.”

He said he would be remiss if he didn’t tell the council that by saving a few dollars now it may be risking far more.

McKee said that the cost of living would erase any raises the employees might receive elsewhere, while driving to and from work daily would also exhaust the higher wages.

To drive to Albany and back 22 days per month, assuming 20 miles per gallon at $4.50 per gallon of fuel, would actually cost approximately $297 per month.

“When you live in a small community, you make sacrifices,” McKee said. “I’m not trying to say the work done here isn’t valued.”

Angulo, a teacher, expressed sympathy with the city employees’ situation, but she agreed with McKee.

“More is expected out of me for less here than if I was in Salem,” she said. “It’s the same type of deal. I chose to stay here. I chose to live here.”

Fentiman said he was “not in favor of freezing these wages,”

“We as a council passed those raises a year ago with full knowledge.”

The charity spending the Budget Committee and council approved last year was a small sum compared to the budget, he said, and he views this as a similarly small sum. Fentiman opposed that move last year, citing concerns about tightening budgets.

If the council and Budget Committee are attempting to send a message to the constituency, he said, he doesn’t think the freeze helps the community, especially if it’s facing the potential loss of a manager.

“In times of crisis, I think an agency is best serviced with stability in management,” Fentiman said.

Mahler said the amount in question is “minute in comparison to a huge budget,” but he said he thought the matter needed to be discussed because it, along with rising insurance costs, is a controllable cost and a red flag.

“I didn’t join the City Council for my stipend,” Mahler said. “Give me a break. I’m willing to give it up. I’m ready to throw them out too.

“We only have so much money in this community, and I’m concerned that we’re going to have another shortfall if we don’t do something. We need to be good stewards of our money. That’s all there is to it.”

The employees are worthy of the raises, he said, but the question is whether it is the right time to give them raises.

As a business owner, Hall said he pays employees who, in turn, pay taxes and help pay for city employees and their raises.

“I’m not able to give my employees wage increases,” he said. “As Dave Holley says, the system is not right.”

But even more important, he said, is the insurance costs. The city needs to regroup and restructure those benefits when contract negotiations begin again.

He noted that, while the size of the salaries shocked him at first, they are in line with other cities.

Public Works Director Mike Adams agreed that a line may need to be drawn somewhere, but at the same time, the raises were approved by council last year and the budget is balanced, including the raises. He suggested looking at it in the future, setting up new guidelines if necessary.

Rodgers said the steps were in place last year, and they represented a commitment, even if it wasn’t an official contract. The size of the raise would amount to little more than a statement, but he said the council ought to look at salaries and insurance in the future.

“I didn’t get a step increase last year,” Martin told the council. “If that’s what it takes to maintain the integrity of the departments, don’t give me one this year.”

“Maybe you all deserve a 10-percent raise, I don’t know,” said Budget Committee member Dave Trask. “We need to start drawing the line somewhere.”

In other business, the council:

n Asked Martin to look into charging interest to the city of Lebanon, which sent a letter dated May 21 stating it would pay half of the training costs for two Sweet Home officers it hired at the end of 2011 on July 15 and the second half on Dec. 15.

The council had agreed to a request by Lebanon in the spring to allow Lebanon to pay half the bill this fiscal year, with a May 11 deadline, and the second half next fiscal year, by Aug. 1. The fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30.

“As we have previously explained, our current budget is not in a position of paying such costs during this fiscal year,” said Assistant City Manager Ginger Allen in the May 21 letter.

The city of Sweet Home has billed the city of Lebanon for approximately $61,000 under an Oregon law that allows jurisdictions to recover training costs for police officers hired from another agency within the first three years of employment.

“Can we charge interest?” Fentiman asked.

“As a business, if somebody doesn’t pay their bill at the end of the month, we charge them,” Mahler said.

Martin said he would find out whether interest charges were allowed.