Winston-Salem council approves merit increases in budget vote

Councilwoman Wanda Merschel (left) and Councilman James Taylor
It played out a little bit like the reality TV show "Survivor" in reverse.

After Winston-Salem Councilman Derwin Montgomery made a substitute motion to eliminate raises for council members, three hands went up immediately with the remaining five members hesitantly joining: No one wanted to be left alone on the island.

Not that some council members hadn't fought for the raises.

Only moments earlier, Councilman Dan Besse had cited the "symbolic value" of council members giving themselves a pay raise of about $150 per year when spending for many departments and community agencies was being reduced. Besse proposed that pay increases to council members be deleted and council members be allowed to redirect the funding to whatever line item they chose.

Councilman Robert Clark belittled the proposed funding streams as "a slush fund," and voted against the measure, along with Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke, Councilwoman Wanda Merschel and Councilwoman Molly Leight.

When the finance committee took the final pass through the budget last week, Merschel, Clark, Leight and Burke declined Besse's request to take the council member raises out of the ordinance despite Besse's threat to vote against the budget if they remained.

The $378.9 million budget sets the tax rate at 53 cents per $100 of valuation, expands bus service to Sundays and provides three-tiered merit increases to employees. City leaders said 70 percent of property owners will see their tax bills go down, based on the recent revaluation that resulted in lower values for most.

Under the compensation plan, employees recognized as top performers will receive 3-percent raises, while those deemed "strong" will be rewarded with 2.5-percent increases and solid workers will earn 1.5-percent raises.

Councilman James Taylor Jr. noted the city employees who crowded into the gallery to witness the vote.

"As I look over the room, I see some of our first responders, some of the men and women who drive our buses and who do the work that needs to be done for our city," he said. "We want to make sure that we are retaining the brightest and the best, and I believe this budget, this merit increase is a road to doing just that."

David Pollard, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 682 representing city firefighters, hailed the raise.

"We've just seen the League of Municipalities study showing how far behind other cities we are," he said. "We're not anywhere near competitive. Hopefully, they'll continue to improve pay."

Pollard also said the firefighters union considered it a "big win" that the city retreated from a proposal to eliminate three fire inspector positions, instead opting to cut one slot that was already vacant.

Ramona Eller, a driver with Winston-Salem Transit Authority's Trans-AID program — which provides door-to-door service for the elderly and disabled — was one of several uniformed employees who attended the meeting. She applauded the vote, but said it was inadequate.

"I think it's not enough because of the hard work we do," she said. She added that she moved to Winston-Salem from Illinois, where she received significantly better pay for a similar job.

In fact, raises for transit workers are hardly a done deal. Budget Director Ben Rowe said after the meeting that the city council vote did not cover transit workers. The transit authority, which operates independently but depends on city funding, will negotiate raises in coming weeks with Transport Workers Union Local 248, which represents employees. Rowe added that the transit authority's budget is funded sufficiently to pay for the same level of raises as employees in conventional departments stand to receive.

Burke cautioned employees that they should expect to earn any raises, and warned against favoritism.

The mayor pro tem said there are "many employees who work and never look at the clock. They come early; they leave late. Now, if you're going to be realistic, the taxpayers are also looking at the employees who are out in the field. They know what they're doing and what they're not doing.

"Also, I said to the city manager: 'Some come and they bring too many of their personal problems to the job,'" Burke added. "So if they come, let them come and do their jobs, and they wouldn't have time for anything but the job that they have been assigned to do. And I think we've talked about the supervisors when they are grading the employees, there'll be no buddy system. If people are working, we are going to give them credit, and we want it to be done fair across the board."

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