Fayet­teville tack­les pay in­creases

Com­mit­tee meets for first time

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - STACY RYBURN

FAYET­TEVILLE — The city’s po­lice and fire­fight­ers want their pay to match the mar­ket rate, but city ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials want to bet­ter de­fine that mar­ket and re­view the struc­ture in which the city pays its uni­formed em­ploy­ees.

The Pay Plan Com­mit­tee, con­sist­ing of half the City Coun­cil, po­lice and fire rep­re­sen­ta­tives and fi­nan­cial ad­min­is­tra­tors, met for the first time Mon­day. The group was born out of a de­bate on how the city gives raises to its em­ploy­ees ev­ery year.

The city cal­cu­lates what raises it can give through a com­bi­na­tion of avail­able re­serves bal­anced with an­tic­i­pated growth in sales tax rev­enue and sur­plus money. A study re­leased early this year from Fayet­teville-based con­sul­tants Jo­han­son Group found the city’s po­lice trail the mar­ket pay rate by 15.6 percent and its fire­fight­ers lag 12.5 percent.

The City Coun­cil agreed in March to put $1.7 mil­lion to­ward raises. Po­lice of­fi­cers and fire­fight­ers, who are on a step pay plan, got an av­er­age 6 percent raise. Merit em­ploy­ees, or the city’s nonuni­formed work­ers, re­ceived a 4 percent pay hike.

The raises rep­re­sent 100 percent of the amount Jo­han­son rec­om­mended to get merit em­ploy­ees up to mar­ket but only 25 percent for step-based em­ploy­ees.

The mar­ket in Jo­han­son’s study was based on 22 re­gional cities from Arkansas and sur­round­ing states, such as Lawrence, Kan.; Spring­field, Mo.; and Still­wa­ter, Okla.

Chief of Staff Don Marr said he felt the mar­ket was wrong. The city’s growth and fi­nances more closely match Fargo, N.D., than say a city in Mis­souri, he said. Plus, most of those cities were cho­sen around 2006 when a pre­vi­ous com­mit­tee on the same topic was formed, Marr said.

Find­ing a sus­tain­able source of rev­enue to pay for con­tin­u­ously grow­ing raises be­came another is­sue. Chief Fi­nan­cial Of­fi­cer Paul Becker said im­ple­ment­ing the en­tire Jo­han­son plan to get po­lice and fire­fight­ers up to the mar­ket rate would com­pound by about $1 mil­lion

ev­ery year.

Sales tax, which makes up about 60 percent of the city’s gen­eral fund rev­enue, will only grow fast enough to sus­tain that plan for a few years, Becker said. Also, even­tu­ally the gen­eral fund re­serves, about $6 mil­lion right now, would run out.

Al­der­man Matthew Petty ad­vised the com­mit­tee against re­ly­ing on a “mir­a­cle tax rev­enue” sce­nario. The city shouldn’t try to give pay in­creases like it has plus do a full im­ple­men­ta­tion of the pay study and bank on an ex­plo­sive growth in sales tax rev­enue, he said.

“Try­ing to find a so­lu­tion that hits all three of those is like try­ing to hunt a unicorn,” Petty said. “That doesn’t ex­ist.”

Build­ing per­mits also serve as a sig­nif­i­cant source of rev­enue for the city, but those are even more un­re­li­able than sales tax growth, Becker said. The city also has to con­tend with ris­ing in­surance costs and pen­sion con­tri­bu­tions, he said.

“I’d love to tell you there’s a mag­i­cal so­lu­tion,” Becker said.

Capt. Jimmy Vin­yard, the Fire Depart­ment’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive, ques­tioned whether

chang­ing the mar­ket would drive the course of the dis­cus­sion away from get­ting po­lice and fire pay up to the rec­om­mended rate. He also wor­ried chang­ing the step pay plan would re­sult in lower pay at a slower rate.

“That’s the ques­tion at hand — we’re close to Au­gust here,” he said. “Are we go­ing to look at fully im­ple­ment­ing what has al­ready been started and mak­ing that hap­pen, or are we go­ing to aban­don it?”

De­tec­tive Leonard Graves, the po­lice rep­re­sen­ta­tive, said he un­der­stood the de­sire to re­view which cities de­fine the mar­ket. But, city of­fi­cials al­ready have a rec­om­men­da­tion from a con­sul­tant in front of them.

“Are we go­ing to make a rec­om­men­da­tion on the study that we started to im­ple­ment, or are we go­ing to do a new rec­om­men­da­tion with newly de­fined cities with dif­fer­ent poli­cies to rec­om­mend?” Graves said. “That’s kind of where I’m at a loss, and my peo­ple are at a loss.”

The com­mit­tee even­tu­ally will make a rec­om­men­da­tion to the full City Coun­cil. Becker es­ti­mated any changes in pol­icy would hap­pen around March at the ear­li­est.

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