HAMLET — Raises for city employees were approved during Tuesday night’s city council meeting — but not without some discussion.
During a consideration of the proposed budget ordinance, council members expressed differing opinions about a cost of living adjustment that would have increased salaries by as much as 4 percent when combined with merit raises for eligible employees.
Councilman David Lindsey broached the subject.
“I won’t be a very popular person,” he said. “And I’m all in favor of a step increase. We are paying $300 extra per person for health insurance, we gave an extra day off and we owe about $175 thousand in back holiday pay for firemen and police officers. That’s a lot of money owed. I’d like to remove the COLA and revisit it at a later day. We still could give them a 2.5 percent raise and no increase in insurance. And we gave a longevity bonus that is every three years for each section and now we’re giving it to every group, every year.”
Lindsey argued that the national COLA did not increase for 2016.
“I came up with that (the 1.5 percent COLA) based on a very simple salary study that staff conducted several months ago,” said City Manager Marcus Abernethy. “We found that a lot of our salaries are a little bit lower than some of our nearest neighbors, so I recommended 1.5 percent because I thought that would be a good amount and would get us closer to the market rate for our neighbors. Richmond County is doing a 3 percent COLA this year, and Rockingham is doing, I think, a 2 or 2.5 percent COLA.”
However, Merit raises amounting to 2.5 percent on average were approved, with Mayor Bill Bayless noting that not everyone would be getting one.
“A merit increase comes one year following an employee’s initial employment and is based on a performance evaluation,” Abernethy said. “If they are performing above the expectations of the supervisor, then they will be eligible for a raise. The cost of living adjustment is supposed to keep up with inflation as well as keep up with our nearest neighbors.”
He added that not every employee becomes eligible for the performance review at the same time because it is based on each one’s anniversary of employment with the city.
“I’m not saying take it,” said Mayor Pro-Tem Jonathan Buie. “But I’m like David, we’ve got to look at it as we did last year. We did a really great budget. And we came in excellent and were able to buy and do additional things mid-year. I would rather do something mid-year, like the COLA, when we know that we’re pretty safe. The employees would still get their merit raise and the increase in pay, but the COLA’s kind of ‘let’s see where we’re at.”
Bayless then asked councilman Eddie Martin whether he had any comments.
“Nothing other than I thought we already discussed and voted on it and decided that’s what we would do,” Martin said. “We’ve got to stay somewhat contingent with the towns surrounding us. Richmond County’s giving three, Rockingham’s giving two. We would at least give one and a half if we can. I’m just not in favor of cutting.”
By the meeting’s end, the council voted to remove the 1.5 percent cost of living adjustment until a later date.
The council also voted to decrease a facade improvement grant program from a proposed $10,000 to $5,000, and tabled a $19,000 project to improve the senior center parking lot “at least until the January mid-year planning session,” according to Abernethy.
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.