Mt. Pleasant raises police department wages, sewer rates

 

James Tilson

Staff writer

5-4-2017

 

MT. PLEASANT—Mt. Pleasant officials are grinding through financial issues that they (and residents) may find tough to deal with in coming weeks as they prepare the fiscal 2018 city budget.

The council met last week following its regular council meeting and wrestled with a potential city budget shortfall. That raised questions about how large a pay increase, if any, the city’s police should receive and just how the city should respond to the fact that it has let residents off the hook for years when it comes to sewer rates.

At meeting’s start, the tentative city budget for next year showed a $100,000 shortfall.

But with whittling and adjusting, the shortfall was pretty much balanced out.

However, Mayor David Blackham wanted about $30,000 to pay for a $2-per-hour wage raise for all staff in the Police Department.

Councilman Kevin Stallings questioned why the Police Department should receive pay raises across the board. He noted that such a move could raise contention among city departments over unequal treatment.

The mayor argued that the raise was justified. He said employees in every other department got incremental raises that were automatic whenever they achieved new certifications. The Police Department had no such certifications and had not had any kind of raise in years, he said.

Stallings was not swayed. He pointed out that with a $100,000 shortfall going in to the new budget, such a raise was hard to justify. With salaries in excess of $20 an hour, Stallings said, police were being paid pretty well compared to most of the county.

But more than that, “Raises should be based on merit, not the entire force at the same time,” Stallings said. He argued merit-pay decisions should be made at the department level, to be reviewed by the council, not imposed from the top down.

Monte Bona, who no longer sits on the council but who, after many years as a councilman, advises on city matters, suggested the city give a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) raise across the board, so as to make the raise less arbitrary.

Stallings, however, insisted that department chiefs must determine levels of pay based on merit.

Blackham then suggested, and the council agreed, that the police department would get a 4-percent COLA raise, rather than the $2-per-hour raise, and the department chief would report to the council as to whether any other raises were merited.

A financial matter that will affect all residents, rather than just a few city employees, is a proposed increase in residential sewer rates—and a hefty one at that.

After much discussion, the council decided to propose a 5-percent increase in sewer rates every year. But in the first year, in order to start bringing rates in line, the council proposed to raise the base rate $6.50 per month. That translates to a 40 percent increase for 2017-18.

Sam Draper, the city public utilities supervisor, told the council Mt. Pleasant sewer rates were the lowest in the county by far and needed to be increased immediately.

Mt. Pleasant charges a base rate of $10.50 per month, while the average for other municipalities in the county is $20 to $25 per month, Draper said. He told the council the city’s base rate should immediately be increased $5 per month, with an inflationary hike every year after that.

Councilman Stallings suggested making up the gap immediately. “If Mt. Pleasant is so far behind, why not catch up?” he asked.

Draper answered he wasn’t comfortable with that big a raise all at once. And Mayor Blackham argued forcefully that such a large raise would have a devastating effect on citizens who were on fixed incomes.

City Treasurer Dave Oxman argued that the projected budget deficit would justify an even larger increase; the $5 raise would only bring the budget to break-even.

Stallings suggested adding $6.50 to the base rate, which would bring it to $17, and implementing the inflationary raise yearly thereafter.

Blackham said the council could propose a rate change at the meeting and then schedule public hearings to begin the rate-increase process.

Bona told the council that spending money on the city’s infrastructure was imperative.

“Having been on the council for 20 years, [I can tell you] the town’s infrastructure is in trouble. This (the public hearing) will be the beginning of a dialog with the citizens, to let them know what is coming.”

Stallings moved that the rate proposed rate change should be $6.50, with a 10-percent yearly increase. He also proposed an increase in the overage rate.

Still concerned with people on fixed incomes, Blackham argued that the yearly increase should only be 3 percent. After discussion, the council agreed on the 5-percent yearly increase.