Carrabelle’s new budget keeps millage rates the same and grants pay raises to all city workers.
On Sept. 24, amid a room full of protesting citizens, city commissioners voted to give themselves a $200 a year raise and to grant pay raises ranging from 3 to 20 percent to city workers.
Olivia Massey, Carrabelle’s newest city commissioner, championed the raises, insisting across-the-board raises would cost the city about $21,000, but some people disagree.
Only four citizens attended the first hearing Sept. 12 on Carrabelle’s tentative budget. The original budget draft did not contain the pay raises, but early in the meeting, Massey said raises were necessary and should be added in.
“There’s money in the budget and they haven’t had raises in seven years,” she said. “These men are working at poverty level making $20,000 a year. Jared Mock is the only employee taking out inmates every day. He makes $25,000 a year.”
She said Mock’s work was hazardous and deserved greater compensation. Massey said the cost of the raises was slight and would not raise taxes. She distributed a worksheet showing the current salaries of city employees, how much increase each worker would receive and the total cost, $21,500 for the city and the same amount for the water and sewer department.
Under the proposal, workers earning $40,000 or more received a $1,000 raise, those earning $30,000 to $39,000 received a $2,000 raise and those earning $20,000 to $29,000 received a $3,000 raise. Commissioners got a $200 annual pay increase. Mock, an employee since Jan. 2011 got 20 percent, increasing his salary from $25,000 to $30,000.
City Clerk Keisha Messer said the proposed increase in water and sewer expense would be funded by reducing the contribution to the contingency fund.
“We had planned to contribute $70,000 and I reduced that to $50,000, which will give us $600,000 in that account,” she said. “We try to keep a rolling balance of $400,000.”
The $21,500 for city raises will be funded by adjusting the balance forward, Messer said.
One member of the audience asked if commissioners were concerned about public perception of the raises when so many people are struggling with a poor economy.
“They choose to be seafood workers. I’ve seen the bay in a lot worse shape than it is today back in 1985,” Massey said. “How come them oystermen is making $1000 a week and still drawing $900 in food stamps? They have the opportunity. They don’t want to do nothing.”
She said few seafood workers have taken advantage of Workforce Florida programs to get additional training to pursue new careers in the face of problems with the oyster harvest.
After discussion, the proposed raises passed unanimously.
After the vote, Commissioner Brenda La Paz said, “You know folks out there aren’t going to understand about the raises so is everybody ready to get chewed up about it?”
Massey replied that “Oh, I’m sure, but the same ones that’ll be complaining is the same ones that will be complaining when their yard is full of water or a tree’s fell in their yard, when we do have a disaster. Who they’ll call first is the city employees.”
About 25 people, many of whom spoke out against the raises, attended the final budget meeting Sept. 24 La Paz opened the meeting with a speech decrying the proposed raises.
“At this point, the city and water and sewer are spending more than they take in,” she said. “At that rate, we won’t have revenue available to pay salaries. The general fund reserve, water, and sewer contingency are savings accounts and should not be used for repeating expenses. If we use from our reserve and contingencies to support significant salary increases this year, what will we do next year and the years after? The reserve and contingency accounts are sacred and need to be reserved for emergencies. Reimbursement from FEMA can take years.”
Messer said La Paz did not understand the funding and that no money would be taken from contingency or reserve accounts.
“I’m terribly offended that the commissioners voted themselves raises unless those raises don’t take effect until everybody in here is reelected,” said former finance commissioner Gathana Parmenas.
“I was finance commissioner for several years when the city had a lot of money,” she said. “Tax revenue was rolling in from a lot of developments that are now ghost developments. Property values are declining every year and so our millage rates are going up every year. We have no more people in this town than we did in the year 2000. Some people say we have fewer. If the census says we have more, it is because they’re in the prison. It’s not because they’re tax-paying citizens on the outside.
“What’s happening is if you compare what city government cost us to run in the year 2000 for the same number of people versus what it’s costing us to run right now, one can see that we’ve got a really big elephant to feed here,” Parmenas said. “I think everybody is reasonable about being concerned about whether we’re dipping into money that was left over from those lush years in order to keep things rolling with no more people to pay the taxes and with declining property values. So what we want, Keisha, is reassurance that the money coming in every year at least equals the money going out every year. When we hear words like contingency and reserves, it sounds to us like you’re dipping into the rainy day funds.
“You haven’t planned for any capital expenditures and in the same meetings I hear about how terrible the roof is, how terrible the AC and heating is and that it’s going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. That needs to be in your budgeting process from the beginning,” she said.
Other audience members complained adjustments for workers compensation insurance and other hidden benefits were improperly figured and that no city worker was below the poverty level.
“Evidently, you’re not taking in the FICA or retirement income that’s added to the person’s income. If a base salary is $31,000 and you add FICA and retirement, he gets over $54,000,” said Randy Usher. “Is that below poverty level? The lowest income guy on here makes over $30,000.”
La Paz presented commissioners with a handout she said demonstrated the pay increases would actually cost the city more than $700,000 and water and sewer more than $600,000.
In an interview after the meeting, Messer said, she did not believe the figures on the sheet were correct and that adjustments to FICA and workman’s compensation would not be made until the next fiscal year.
Usher and La Paz warned that a 20 percent pay raise for a single employee could upset coworkers.
Massey said Mock’s job was dangerous and he deserved a raise.
“I’ve been down there for a little over a year. I don’t have any retirement. If I don’t go to work, I don’t get a paycheck,” said Shawn Oxendine. “I want everybody to prosper and I want us to do good. I’m just asking y’all to run this thing like a business. If we don’t run it like a business, we’re going to run it into the ground.”
Massey said money for the raises was available in the budget without increasing millage. La Paz said the decision to give raises should be delayed and a formal pay scale developed.
The millage rate of 8.77 passed unanimously, with Finance Commissioner Charlotte Schneider not in attendance. The budget passed 3-1 with La Paz opposed. As the meeting closed, La Paz announced she would not accept an increase in her salary.
The city of Carrabelle was the only taxing district to see an enlargement of its tax base, after having suffered a nearly 26 percent decline last year. Carrabelle’s combined valuation this year will expand from $101.8 million to $102.7 million, an increase of $916,000, or nearly 1 percent.