The process of organizing the 2012 budget in Liberty Lake meant good news for residents and a disappointing development for employees of Spokane County’s easternmost city.
By the time the financial blueprint had been approved by the City Council in mid-December, citizens learned that a 6-percent utility tax on cable, gas, electric, garbage and phone bills would be reduced to 3 percent. Municipal staff, meanwhile, received an early Scrooge-like Christmas gift – a freeze on a proposed 2-percent merit step pay increase until further council discussion in the New Year.
That conversation took place at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting with scarcely enough representatives of the governing board in attendance to qualify for a quorum and cast a qualifying vote. Ultimately, the adjustment in compensation was approved by a 3-1 margin. Council Members Dan Dunne, Shane Brickner and Cris Kaminskas voted in the affirmative, while Odin Langford – who first brought up the hold on pay raises in December – accounted for the sole dissenting vote.
Prior to the vote, Interim City Administrator Mike Cecka provided council with an overview of the city’s current reimbursement structure as it compares to an annual salary survey conducted by the Association of Washington Cities. Cecka noted that Liberty Lake had only one current employee whose pay was over 10 percent of the AWC average while the compensation for three municipal directors and eight mid-level employees fell within 10 percent above the AWC norm. Cecka did express concern over the state of eight employees (one director, four mid-level and three support staff) whose pay is currently below 10 percent of the statewide standard.
In recommending the 2-percent step hike, Cecka also advised that the city compile a detailed review of each employee’s role at City Hall to be completed by July 1. He also encouraged the council to approve a “catch-up mechanism” in addition to the normal step increases that would bring compensation in line with state averages.
In a workshop discussion, Cecka offered ideas to adjust the current rules of procedure on City Council, starting with the definition of “excused absences” in light of less-than-stellar attendance around the dais in 2011. Cecka noted that state law dictates that three unexcused absences in a row – or a combination of 10 excused or unexcused absences for the year – constitute grounds for dismissal from the governing board. Council members reached a consensus that illness, family emergencies, bereavement or work obligations should be considered valid reasons to miss a meeting.
Mayor Steve Peterson said that running for elected office includes the understanding that attendance should be expected.
“This is a job – you represent the city,” Peterson said. “The council doesn’t work without the dialogue that takes place at this table.”
Council Member Dan Dunne, who won a place at the dais in the November general election, agreed.
“Participating in council is a commitment to the people,” he said.
In discussing the policy surrounding phone conferencing at council meetings, Langford said “the key will be getting a system that actually works.” Cecka recommended that certain conditions – such as public hearings or quasi-judicial discussions – are not ideal for council members to call in, while voting over the phone should be limited.
Cecka also commented on the guidelines for public comments at council meetings, saying that the city’s current policy of citizen participation at the beginning and end of the meeting as well as before each ordinance vote may be excessive.
“It becomes more of a town meeting form of government when people comment so much,” he said.
While council members agreed that designating public comments at the start of each meeting may be an improvement, Brickner said that the city should not discount citizen involvement and could do a better job of informing resident by printing future council agendas in the community newspaper, The Splash.
“Citizen comments represent the citizens and knowledge we may not be aware of,” Brickner said.
In other council news:
- Cecka said the city now has two applicants for the council position vacated by Ryan Romney in December. A special meeting is set for Tuesday, Jan. 31, to interview candidates and decide on a replacement.
- Patricia Lutzenberger was confirmed to the Liberty Lake Library board of directors while Travis Montgomery was announced as the library’s technical specialist.
- Community Development Director Doug Smith provided an overview of plans for a 6.4-acre plot of land once designated as the future site of a city center. Based on a proposal by Peterson, the plat would be developed to benefit the Liberty Lake Farmers Market through the addition of frontage improvements, sidewalks and irrigation. An additional 40 parking spaces in the STA shuttle lot to the south of the market grounds would also be included in the project. Smith said the city has plans to discuss the upgrade with STA and the Farmers Market board of directors and return construction bids to City Council in time for building to begin this spring or summer.