Council considers increasing salary for city employees
By Samantha Jones
The Eureka Springs City Council spent much of its meeting Monday night discussing the possibility of increasing the salary for city employees in 2021 but ultimately took no action on the issue.
Council member Bob Thomas brought the idea to the table, saying he initially wanted to give city employees a bonus for their work in 2020 but was told by city attorney Tim Weaver that the council can't do that.
"So I can just say thank you to all of you," Thomas said.
Thomas recalled the council talking about developing the 2021 budget in June and said that hasn't happened yet because of the virus. Mayor Butch Berry will present the budget in December, Thomas said, and the council will vote on it in January.
"I am asking this council to approve a salary increase for the city employees," Thomas said.
Berry said a cost-of-living allowance has already been figured into the budget. Because of COVID-19, Berry said, the city has no plans for any other salary increase.
"We're looking at something possibly mid-term, because we still don't know what's going to happen," Berry said.
Berry said he's concerned the city will get shut down again because of the virus, describing similar shutdowns occurring in Texas and Louisiana.
"I don't think our governor is going to do that, but we were hesitant to include anything at this point until we found out exactly where we are in the budget," Berry said.
Thomas said the council has learned a few lessons about the budget because of COVID-19.
"If we have to, we can pull back," Thomas said. "I would hope this council would approve tonight including a 2 percent increase for all employees. Of course, if the state shuts down in the middle of the year, we'd have to correct that."
"It's hard to take away money from employees, as we've talked about with the fire department," Berry said.
Council member Mickey Schneider pointed out that half of the council members won’t be sitting on the council when the budget is approved in January, with three new council members slated to join the council. Schneider suggested that Berry produce two budget proposals, one including the salary increase and one without it.
Council member Melissa Greene suggested putting a clause in the budget to give employees a raise mid-year that would retroactively apply to January, assuming the city finances continue to do well.
Council member Harry Meyer pointed out that the minimum wage will increase by $1 in January, so some employees will get raises anyway. Meyer said he'd like to see all employees have a starting wage that's at least $1 above minimum wage.
"That just seems fair," Meyer said. "It's hard to make it on those wages. A lot of these guys can't even go to the dentist, if you take a look at their teeth."
Council member Susan Harman asked what the cost-of-living allowance has been over the past few years and Berry said the city has given employees a raise between 2 and 3 percent.
"Then we had a raise based on their performance evaluation," Berry said. "That is the merit increase."
Thomas said the council would be free to adjust the budget in January, so there's no reason to offer two proposals. Thomas moved to include a 2 percent across-the-board salary increase in the 2021 budget for all city employees and the council voted it down, with Thomas and Meyer voting yes and Greene, Harman and Schneider voting no. Council member Terry McClung was absent.
Greene then moved that the council "in June look at a 2 percent raise retroactive if we are moving along like we are now … if we are doing well." Weaver said that motion was so open-ended it could lead to a lawsuit.
"If you leave it open-ended and you don't grant it, those wanting it will sue and claim you are doing well," Weaver said. "If you are doing well and you do grant it, those who think you aren't doing well will bring suit. You need a measurable stick … if you want to avoid that possibility."
Schneider moved to "declare in January that if the budget will handle it, we will do raises in June instead of January" and Weaver said that motion had the same problem as Greene's.
"You need a number to measure what is doing good," Weaver said.
Greene suggested deferring the issue to the council's next meeting, when finance director Lonnie Clark could bring in figures for the proposed salary increase. The council continued to discuss the issue but never took a vote, and Thomas said he was disappointed about that.
"Well, I just would like to say that I appreciate the people who wanted to make a mid-year or whatever salary increase possible but they didn't follow through with a motion so we have nothing to go on from this point," Thomas said. "Regardless of that, I just wish it had gone better."
The council's next regular meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 23, at The Auditorium.