Budget, raises waiting on pay study

West Memphis officials thinking long-term

By John Rech news@theeveningtimes.com

The City of West Memphis is operating on one-twelfth of a budget as city council members await the results of a study that could affect the city’s bottom line. After years of frozen wages and salaries for West Memphis City employees the ice dam is set to explode with another raise recommendation for many employees. City workers got a 3 percent year end bonus to enjoy just before Thanksgiving weekend bargain shopping. Next came a city-wide 3-percent raise costing $400,000 along with a move from 24 pay periods to 26 paychecks a year for wage earners that started this month. Now City Council waits to consider the results of a position by position wage, salary and benefit analysis with similar cities. The study came at the request of the budget committee after a wage comparison was forwarded by the Utilities Commission for a double-digit increase in the overall department payroll budget. City council pigeonholed the request and sent it back to committee asking instead for a whole-house citywide recommendation. The benchmark study began, it took more than a month to pick comparable cities. Benton emerged from the comparisons as the mean. “We wanted a a similar MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area),” said Catt. For the most part that looks like Benton. But you still have to look at the number of workers and consider the amount of sales tax.” In the interim, the city passes a one-month budget to keep operations going for the month of January. The council is expected to readdress the full 2016 budget next Thursday. The budget committee won’t recommend a blank check according to Catt. The positions paid lower than the selected cities average will be recommended for another increase. Proposed raises for the utilities department and a legal secretary were inked by the budget committee already, while the rest of the city workers and City Council itself wait to see the results of the overall comparison study. City jobs that are in the median range for pay will stand pat. Finally, some West Memphis positions paid over the average will be recommended for a pay freeze going into the future. “We’ve been back and forth because there is no such thing as a cookie cutter version of this,” said Catt of the arduous task charged to his committee by City Council. “We have lot of job descriptions here that are not over there. So we’ve had to search through jobs with similar descriptions in other communities. We’ve got to add those into what HR already has done. We‘ve got to make sure we are as fair as humanly possible. We’ll make a full recommendation to city council based off this data tied in one little package. It will be “here it is, this is how much it costs. How do you want to pay for this?’” With the study setting wages for the rest of 2016 incomplete, a cascade effect spilled over to the rest of city business. With the study not ready for the budget, city council last month passed a stop-gap resolution of sorts for 1/12 of the 2015 budget (plus the 3-percent blanket raise). This bought time in January for the council to await the final study. Some heart palpitations registered at City Council when the leading administrator, Dewayne Douglas announced his resignation with the whole city final budget depending on the budget committee’s benchmark recommendation. City Treasurer Frank Martin and Committee chairman Tracy Catt met with Douglas and expressed confidence the city won’t be left in the lurch. The results will be in and ready for city council by the second meeting of the month. “That’s what I just talked to (him) Douglas about,” said Catt after January the 7 meeting. “He will work with us and make sure it’s ready.” The budget worked out to date left $153,000 on the bottom line of the general fund. Catt said that won’t be enough to fund the recommended increases. “Will it handle all the request for all the employees from the general fund? No sir, it will not,” asked and answered Catt rhetorically. “There are some things council will have to look at if they want to fund it or phase it in where current revenue sources can fund it long term.” The City of West Memphis operates without much debt according to the budget committee chairman and is financially strong compared to cities that are struggling. Catt tipped his hat to the Mayor Bill Johnson and perhaps pointed to an option to underwrite more raises. “The mayor has done a tremendous job fiscally,” said Catt. “The city’s borrowing power is fantastic. So, short term downturns (in sales tax collection) will not effect the city at all.”

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