West Memphis finally passes full 2016 budget

Council declines to move forward on additional raises

By John Rech news@theeveningtimes.com

West Memphis City council passed the 2016 city budget just in time, but did so without acting on benchmark raise recommendations upon which city workers held hopes. With a dozen Utility Department workers on hand for the proceedings, the budget passed last Thursday at the final January meeting, just in the nick of time. Statute requires that budget proposals be in city councilors hands by the first of December and a final budget set by the first of February. After putting off passing a complete budget, West Memphis officials met both deadlines and funded January with a continuing resolution amounting to one-twelfth of 2015’s spending, plus a promised 3-percent pay raise for all city employees. Mayor Bill Johnson said the city dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s in getting the budget done. In recent years, passing a budget meant a late December called meeting, including one on New Year’s Eve in 2013. But this year, with preliminary budget numbers circulated, council members still wanted to have benchmark pay rate data to review before considering another round of raises based on the Arkansas Municipal League’s average pay range. Council bridged the gap by funding January and, according to the mayor, fulfilled the city’s obligation to place the final budget by Feb. 1. But the pay study results did not arrive in time to digest before the deadline. “The budget had to be in the hands of the council by Dec. 1, and must be approved by council by the first of February,” said Mayor Bill Johnson. “We did get them (department budgets) to the council.” The remaining 2016 budget was voted into place, 3-percent raise and all, at the Jan. 21 meeting. The mayor spoke about the idea of considering raises, bringing wages and salaries into line with the averages culled from Municipal league information. The data just came in and hadn’t crystallized in time for the hard deadline to pass the budget at city council. “There are a lot of things to consider on that,” said Johnson. “It wasn’t ready to be voted on. Everybody wants the money and needs the money and many deserve the money. It’s nice. But it’s a matter whether you have the money or not.” Merit pay came up in pre-city council work session. Johnson pointed out that formal training achievement are readily available for some positions but not others. “I think we need to consider raises when workers pass certifications,” said City Councilman James Pulliaum. “There is something to merit pay, but it is difficult to handle in city government,” said Johnson Thursday after the meetings. “It looks bad to the sanitation worker out in the weather just like that utility man. The man on the back of the garbage truck is important, too. The sanitation worker is out in the elements all the time where the utility worker may not be.” “I’m sympathetic to them,” said Johnson. “Many deserve more money but it is just a matter of what we can do.” During the pre-council meeting Ramona Taylor pushed for the Utility Department raise to go along with the 2016 budget resolution. The Utility Commission proposed an 11-percent payroll budget increase and funded it completely by consolidated positions and not replacing some positions after attrition and drove an actual savings to the purposed payroll bottom line. The Police Department used the same management principles and netted its captains a raise last year. Taylor said Utilities Manager John Rimmer had jumped through all the hoops and it was time to act on the benchmark raise. The 11 percent payroll raise amounted to $320,000. “He restructured the department to give raises, like the police department,” said Taylor. “That’s what we said we wanted department heads to do and if you’re not costing us money then we reward you by approving what you’ve done.” In chambers, City Council sidestepped the groundwork laid by the Utility Department in order to pass the 2016 city budget. Utilities workers were disappointed with the inaction toward their benchmark raise and cornered Budget Committee Chairman Tracy Catt after the City Council Meeting. Workers wanted raises that brought them into line with other municipal utility workers. Catt offered reassurances but said the proposal that had developed over the past few months was not ready for a full council vote. “It’s a procedural issue at this point,” Catt told utility workers about the department raises hanging in limbo. “It will be presented to council the way John (Rimmer, Utilities Manager) presented it to the Budget Committee. Your department is unique, you generate a ton of money. Other departments actually cost us to run. The process is slow and has been frustrating. We’ve got to bring other departments in and find adjustments.” But, department managers put their best foot forward to find funds for the three percent raise and the 2016 budget. Johnson indicated that the numbers for raises to bring all city workers to mid range compared to the Arkansas Municipal League pay range were fresh off the press and too late to propose at the Thursday meeting. The numbers added up to another $700,000. “I only just got those numbers this morning,” reported Johnson.

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