With the budget preparation season well underway, the conversation at Liberty Lake City Hall these days revolves around money.
At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, the discussion started with an overview of municipal finances but soon branched off into a lively debate over the future of staff salaries with representatives of the governing board offering a variety of opinions on a proposal to bring compensation in line with current state standards.
After declining merit increases for city employees in the 2011 budget, Mayor Wendy Van Orman’s preliminary budget for 2012 includes 2-percent raises for staff. On Tuesday, the talk turned to how the city is also looking at salary averages across the state in determining a fair wage structure for Liberty Lake. The process includes referencing information provided by the Association of Washington Cities.
“We still have some employees that are underpaid, according to AWC,” said Finance Director R.J. Stevenson
Van Orman said that continuing with the proposed 2-percent step increases would still not be enough to bridge the gap that exists between the salaries of certain employees and their counterparts throughout the state. There is currently no mention of additional pay adjustments in the 2012 budget.
“We have employees that are so far under other comparables that right now, they have no chance of reaching that level,” Van Orman said.
Council Member Odin Langford expressed concern as to why the city was now lagging so far back on the reimbursement front.
“I find it odd that we are now comparing (salaries) to AWC,” Langford said.
“I recall having that discussion last year and the year before. How did we get so far behind?”
Community Development Director Doug Smith responded by pointing out that “while comparables have been made year after year, adjustments (to earnings) have not.”
The mayor’s budget includes a hike in compensation for various administrative roles, including finance director ($89,000); treasurer ($50,000) and city clerk ($49,000). The funding set aside for a new city administrator ($160,000) was also based on state averages as indicated by AWC while an increase in the rate paid for the city attorney – from $48,000 to $60,000 – reflects restructuring of a contract originally drawn up in 2008.
Council Member Judi Owens raised a question about the pay raises in light of the current economy. She called attention to pay cuts that both she and Mayor Pro Tem Dave Crump received over the past year in their full-time job with local school districts.
“I think we need to consider as a council if we want to make these kinds of adjustments,” Owens said.
Owens added that any proposed increase “should be evaluated on an individual basis,” an approach seconded by Crump who called the debate over salaries “a hot topic” in the annual process of organizing a budget.
Council Member Susan Schuler, who walked out of a budget meeting in frustration last year, expressed disappointment with the acrimonious tone of the salary debate, despite Van Orman presenting her budget two weeks ahead of the state mandate.
“We’re not starting off very well,” Schuler said. “I’m still committed to going through this budget process in a way that is best for citizens. We need to discuss this as civilly and politely as possible – otherwise I’m resigning.”
Stevenson provided an update on the general fund Tuesday, noting that several adjustments had moved the final total from $5.139 million to $5.113 million. Assuming $5.2 million in city revenue for 2012, he said Liberty Lake would be looking at a surplus of around $90,000.
Stevenson also mentioned a potential budget amendment that would involve the city paying off a $1.3 million bond on 6.4 acres of land purchased near the previous site of City Hall on Meadowwood Lane. The lump sum payment would free up $161,000 in the 2012 general fund scheduled as part of the original yearly debt allocation. Stevenson said the payment would be possible based on the 2011 ending cash balance buoyed by revenue from the city’s 6-percent utility tax and sales tax revenue, up 14.5 percent from projected amounts for this year.
The City Council also had a first reading of Ordinance No. 188-A, an amendment that would lower the utility tax on phone, cable, gas and electric services from 6 percent to 3 percent beginning Jan. 1, 2012. A second reading and vote is expected at the Nov. 15 City Council meeting. A final public hearing and second reading of the 2012 budget is scheduled for Dec.
The City Council has until Dec. 31 to approve next year’s budget.