Council debates 'symbolic' pay raise during final budget discussions

Dan Besse (foreground) and Robert Clark debated a pay raise for themselves.
The Winston-Salem City Council finalized the fiscal year 2013-2014 budget this afternoon with only a few minor tweaks, including a tiered merit raise for employees and carving out additional grant money for the non-profit Creative Corridors for public-engagement activities as the ordinance moves to a final vote on Monday.

Having achieved consensus on big items such as the tax rate, bond funds for street maintenance and personnel reductions, the drama moved into a piece of side-show theater between council members Dan Besse and Robert Clark — two members who are said to harbor designs on the mayor's seat when incumbent Allen Joines retires.

The jousting began when Besse announced that he objects to a 1.5-percent raise for council members, which all agree is largely symbolic. Council members currently receive a salary of $9,800, which equates to a raise of $140. 

Besse threatened to vote against the final budget if it includes the pay raise.

"I think the symbolism is terrible for us to take a salary increase in a year when we're increasing the tax rate," said Besse, a Democrat who represents the Southwest Ward.

"Even the one percent deserve a raise," quipped Clark, a Republican who represents the largely affluent West Ward.

"I'd love for Dan to vote against his Sunday bus service," Clark gleefully added, alluding to a budget provision to expand bus service to Sundays — a policy goal long sought by Besse, a staunch public transit advocate.

"In a year when we're cutting taxes — not the tax rate — you don't take percentages to the bank; you take dollars," Clark continued. "And the average person is giving us less dollars. That's what's known as a tax cut."

Clark's point alluded to the fact that while council is raising the actual tax rate, it will be below what is considered revenue neutral — the rate needed to make up for the loss of overall tax base in the recent revaluation. City Manager Lee Garrity has said that under the proposed budget about 70 percent of property owners will see their tax bills go down. 

But Besse said many of his constituents, even those with modest incomes, saw their property values rise, bucking the trends across the city. He said he wasn't going to set himself and other council members up for criticism.

"If it stays in the finance committee's recommended budget, I will make an amendment to take it out," Besse warned, "and we'll see who votes yea or nay."

Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke chided her two colleagues: "This is why America's in the condition it's in."

The most substantive change made by the finance committee was a tiered scheduled for performance raises, providing a 3-percent raise for "top performers," a 2-percent raise for "strong performers" and a 1.5-percent raise for "solid performers," based on the recommendation of supervisors. 

Funds for the raises will cost an estimated $460,000, to be financed through privilege license fees on internet sweepstakes parlors and a salary fund.

"I can tell you where the top performers are based on the phone calls I get," said Councilwoman Wanda Merschel, who chairs the finance committee. "That's in sanitation. Sanitation [services] can make or break a council member." 

Council members passed on several opportunities to cut spending, particularly in the areas of grant-making and travel for city employees.

Merschel noted that the city funds both Piedmont Triad Regional Council and Piedmont Triad Partnership, adding that she finds the allocations somewhat redundant and would favor granting the money solely to the partnership.

Councilwoman Molly Leight, the council liaison to the regional council, defended the agency.

"They do all sorts of workforce development, they do weatherization," she said. "They do a lot of aging services. They do extraordinary good work."

Clark interjected, "You mention training. Forsyth Tech trains, the schools train. The Urban League does workforce development training."

Merschel said she ultimately defers to Leight on the matter, and the council members moved on without making any changes.

Council also scrutinized travel funds for the water and information systems departments. The city has budgeted $66,890 for the water department and $56,130 for information systems.

Garrity said that the information systems department could make do with about 30 percent less money for travel, but that the money is needed so that water department employees can travel within the state to take classes required to maintain their certifications. He acknowledged that information systems employees travel nationally to what he termed "destination" cities for conferences.

Councilman Derwin Montgomery set up a save for the funds by alluding to Winston-Salem's recognition by the Center for Digital Government for 11 years running as being among the 10 most technology-advance cities of its size.

"Does anyone find the irony in travel for IS?" Merschel asked. "Okay, if we think that's key for keeping our digital city awards...."

By their silence, Merschel's colleagues indicated they had no stomach for cutting the funds.

The council also reviewed spending on grants to nonprofits engaged in arts, science, culture and community development activities. The city manager's proposed budget includes $2.2 million for dozens of agencies, with the exception of two organizations: Creative Corridors and the Institute for Dismantling Racism.

Creative Corridors, which has marshaled community involvement in an effort to raise the aesthetic quality of major roadways around downtown, requested $15,000 for community engagement and fundraising work. 

At the urging of members Montgomery and James Taylor, the council amended the budget to accommodate Creative Corridor's request. The request will be funded by reducing grants to the remaining agencies. Merschel elicited an acknowledgement from Creative Corridors Executive Director Russell DuBois that the funds will be a one-time grant.

Burke was the first to speak up for the Institute for Dismantling Racism, which is requesting $60,000.

"There's still racism in this city," she observed, while professing to "not even know who this group is."

Deputy City Manager Derwick Paige explained that staff decided not to include funding for the Institute for Dismantling Racism in the budget because of concerns by the Winston-Salem Human Relations Commission. He said the funding request was initially submitted to the human relations commission, adding that the commission voted against it because of concerns about a conflict of interest considering that a member of the commission is one of the founders of the Institute for Dismantling Racism. 

Council members agreed by consensus to not fund the Institute for Dismantling Racism through the annual budget up for adoption on Monday, but rather to direct Garrity as city manager to review the human relations department budget and see if there are adequate funds to execute a contract with the nonprofit. Besse, Leight and Taylor all vocalized support for the idea.

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