City officials discuss rationale for proposed employee raises

During an employee appreciation luncheon on June 24, Benton Mayor David Mattingly announced a proposed 4.1 percent, across-the-board pay increase for city employees.

The proposal first must pass through a joint meeting tonight of the Finance Committee and the Personnel Committee in order to be presented at the next City Council meeting for approval.

The last employee raise approved by the council was done with Ordinance 71 of 2011, passed on Dec. 19, 2011. It approved a 2 percent raise effective Jan. 1, 2012.

Mayor David Mattingly, aldermen and public safety officials were asked to state their opinions of the raise proposal and the potential impact to the city, public safety departments and the financial status of the city.
According to Mattingly, "The last raise from the general fund to employees was in January 2012. We started talking about potential raises in February of this year after seeing the end-of-year number for 2013. The city had booked positive numbers in 2012 and 2013.

"As of May 2014, year-to-date financial numbers show that department budgets had broken even. Every department is at or below budget. The savings created will fund the raises for the remaining six months of the fiscal year. The raises are funded and will not create an additional expense for the city. Everybody's been working hard to create the growth we are experiencing and the revenue it brings. Employees need to get some of what we are doing. They are making it happen."

Finance Committee Chairman Jerry Ponder and Finance Director Bill Wilson have been crunching the numbers for several months and say the city is in good financial condition.

Ponder says he supports the ordinance to enact the 4.1 percent wage increase proposed by the mayor if it comes before the council and sees the benefit of higher city wages in helping Benton compete with surrounding cities when recruiting for open positions.

"While there are few things that are absolutes, I do not perceive difficulty in funding the raises going forward." said Ponder. "I generally tend to be quite conservative, and raises, once given, are permanent.
"Will there be issues going forward? I'm sure. As we discussed at the end of last year, our health insurance is reviewed twice annually for loss history and is subject to increase. The last one of those was $190,000 annually, as I recall. We have our LOPFI pension obligation to meet and that can be a bit of a moving target dependent on many factors, and certainly capital needs have to be addressed on occasion."

The total cost of the proposed raises to the general fund for the balance of 2014, salary and benefits, if approved, would be approximately $197,375.

Ponder referenced the information presented as part of the sales tax initiative passed by voters in the fall of 2013.

"There was a very specific plan presented that showed expected revenues to be generated by the new public safety tax, and a very detailed outline as to the expenditure of those funds," he said. "Those included personnel costs on an ongoing basis, including incremental raises, fire/police stations that are badly needed, particularly to the eastern part of town north of the interstate, and replacement of apparatus.

"I believe that we were given an opportunity with the event center and rewarded for coming in under budget and on time with the public safety and parks initiatives approval,"he added. "It is of the utmost importance to me that we not only be transparent, but that we do what it is that we said we would do if the voters gave their consent.

"Our department heads have done a wonderful job of managing their funds. The mayor has worked very closely with them and there are monthly meetings held to discuss budget status among other things."
Alderman Bill Donnor, chairman of the Personnel Committee for the city, said he views the increase as a well-deserved issue for employees and one that he will strongly support.

"When we proposed the public safety tax, we pledged that some of that money would go to raises for the public safety group. We are just staying true to our pledge. The public safety group makes up the majority of the general fund employees.

"The public safety tax will relieve the general fund from the responsibility of funding the 911 operations at a cost of $600,000 and some of that savings from the general fund will help to fund the non-public safety group raises."

Donnor noted that city employees have remained loyal to the city during the years that cost-of-living expenses went up and their pay remained the same.

"They did not leave for better jobs, they stayed with the city and helped make Benton the great place it is today," he said. "We are in competition with other cities for high quality employees and we must remain competitive."

Alderman Brad Moore said he also will support the increase "with the commitment to making this the last flat/across-the-board pay increase to be given (switching to a merit system based on employee evaluations in 2015)."  He supports a plan, via the annual budget, to give future merit-based increases in an effort to make the city of Benton more competitive in the open job market. 

"To this point, the city of Benton has served as a training ground for 'uniformed employees' — we bear the expense of training and certification only to lose them to another city that offers higher annual compensation.

"This has proven to be a very expensive situation for Benton to endure," Moore said. "We must position the city of Benton's compensation package to be competitive in the job market so that we retain our new hires for a longer term.

"With Benton's robust retail economy, expansion of Benton's retail sales tax base and voter-approved sales tax rate increase, there will be no problem funding the total expense of this increase, which will be approximately $325,000."

The half-cent public safety tax increase is considered an important factor in improving staffing levels and equipment needs in the police and fire departments.

According to Police Chief Kirk Lane, the inability to provide pay raises for police officers has been detrimental.

"We have seen tough economic times that have not afforded the opportunity of pay increases for officers that resulted in employee turnover," Lane said. "Respectively, the officers have been dedicated to retain their employment and have worked hard to be fiscally responsible to stay within the reduced budgets that we have outlined.

"Their work has resulted in the police department’s ability to remain under budget, and those savings from not being staffed used to purchase vehicles and equipment that had been lacking in safety of those existing employees.

"This, in itself, was a task completed with rising costs of doing business. Police departments around us have very competitive salaries, which causes us concern for retention.

"Officers are not hired and put on the streets to serve that same day," Lane said. "There is extensive training and qualification that takes almost one year to achieve to just get them started. Losing officers to higher paid departments after time and costs attributed to achieve their basic training takes a toll on the department and ability to serve the community efficiently.

"The pay increase helps in this process," he said. "It improves morale, retention and makes it easier to recruit new high quality officers that are on the horizon based on the new public safety tax."

Lane explained that "this decision was based on funding available due to savings coupled with the need to adjust salaries to keep well-trained employees that are very dedicated to serving this city."

"Department heads have developed workplace environments that are service-oriented and productive. Employees buy in to solving problems and their community is productive. Based upon these implementation improvements in our public safety plan, we have already seen our School Resource Officer Program double in size and become a more proactive safe environment.

"We look forward to improving our ability to be more proactive with improved staffing levels, training and quality of work as part of our existing plan under the new public safety tax. Now we can start the process of compensating employees for their hard work, which will only improve all areas by providing better service to the city."

Fire Chief Bill Ford echoed Lane’s assessment about retention of employees, but he carried it a step further by adding that the pay raise "will help us be more competitive in recruiting good quality people to our department, especially local people."

"Too many times I have seen people from our own community go to Little Rock, North Little Rock, etc., simply because of a more attractive compensation package, knowing all along they would rather stay and serve in the community where they reside, which also promotes loyalty and a sense of ownership.

"Also, like the police department, we cannot readily hire someone today and place them directly on the line without a certain amount of training. A new hire will require a minimum of 14 weeks of certified training (Firefighter 1 and EMT)before we can place him/her on the line as a usable firefighter and another year of what I call knowledge of the community to adequately serve. "When you factor in specialized training such as haz-mat, low angle rope rescue, water rescue, etc. and other specialized forms of training that a firefighter might obtain on the job, we create a commodity that is on the market," Ford said.

"Mayor Mattingly expressed in his announcement that this raise would not have been possible had it not been for the conservative approach and cost-saving that each and every employee practiced to make this possible," Ford said. "Now that is a morale-booster in and of itself, showing that all employees are taking ownership and, to a certain degree, has some control over a good positive result.

"Seeing the results of the conservative approach to the budget has validated my message to the men about being good custodians of the tax dollar."

Both Lane and Ford commended the leadership of Mattingly and the cooperation of the City Council for making the wage increases possible.

If the wage increase ordinance is passed by the City Council, the pay raises are expected to take effect retroactively to July 1.