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Park Rapids City Council debates budget for salary hikes

Discussion became heated between council members concerned about over-budgeting and staff retention.

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Park Rapids City Hall
Park Rapids Enterprise file photo
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Voices were raised during a special Park Rapids City Council budget workshop on Tuesday.

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Erika Randall
Park Rapids Enterprise file photo

Council members Erika Randall and Tom Conway disagreed, at times heatedly, over how much room the city’s 2023 budget should make for wage increases.

At the time, the city had negotiated a three-year labor agreement with the police patrol officers’ union, but not with other unions. Randall objected to the size of the wage increases budgeted for other employees in view of the 4% per year increase the patrol officers agreed to.

Asked later what percent wage increases the budget proposed, City Administrator Angel Weasner said the city wants to avoid disclosing that but acknowledged it was higher than 4%.

Randall voiced concern about the city’s finance committee negotiating the patrol officers’ salary hike as a cost-of-living increase, when it was at least partly a pay scale adjustment. She said this may hurt the city’s position in other union negotiations and the wage expectations of non-union people, such as administrative staff.

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Also, she said, the three annual 4% increases for the officers represented “the biggest cost-of-living increase I’ve ever seen” in 20 years of government work.

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Tom Conway
Park Rapids Enterprise file photo

Conway reported seeing wage increases of 4 to 4.5% in the private sector. “Inflation has been at a 40-year high,” he said. “The labor market hasn’t seen anything like this in 50 years. And so, if you’re going to want to retain staff, you’re going to have to get on the same ball diamond as the rest of the world.”

Randall contended that outside law enforcement, the city hasn’t seen staff turnover due to pay. She said law enforcement is a different animal regarding retention issues.

Conway replied that it’s been more than a year since administrative staff had a pay scale adjustment. “If you go a year without receiving a raise, I would bet you anybody sitting at this table would walk,” he said.

Randall reminded him that state employees, like herself, received a 0% wage increase this year.

“Well, I’m sorry for that, but I don’t think that’s the right move for the city,” said Conway.

Sensitive to constituents

Council member Liz Stone said she doesn’t think their constituents are getting a 4% raise each year, to which Conway replied, “Constituents aren’t going to be very happy if you don’t have a city staff. And I do think that in today’s labor market, we’re talking about retention.”

Randall urged that the council see documentation that city employees are underpaid, particularly the administrative staff who received pay raises a year ago. Discussion revealed these raises were enacted due to duties being added to city office staff when departing, full-time planner Andrew Mack and treasurer Jeremy Jude were not replaced.

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“The wage markets have been astronomically increased this year,” said Conway.

Randall challenged council members whether they can look at the public and say they feel comfortable with administrative staff getting a 12% salary increase over three years, with benefits, compared to what citizens are making in the private sector.

“When we’re talking with the non-union folks, we’re not talking a three-year segment,” said Conway.

Randall said the city generally follows its union contracts when it adjusts non-union wages.

“But the wage increase can be determined one year at a time,” said Conway. “Each year, we deal with the non-union (employees regarding) where we think the market has adjusted for their jobs. The union’s negotiated three years in advance. That’s part of the advantage. With the union, I’m trying to predict where the market’s going to be three years from now. With the non-union, I don’t have to make that prediction.”

However, Conway added later, “If you want people to be satisfied with how we’re treating them, we don’t want to have a big disparity” between union and non-union pay raises.

He stressed that administrative staff’s last raise was not due to cost-of-living increases but added duties. Acknowledging that employees aren’t currently “flocking out” of city hall due to pay issues, he added, “I don’t want to wait until they’re flocking out before I try to fix it.”

Randall said the city has had no retention issues due to pay, but Conway replied, “See how that works out for you over the course of the next year, given today’s labor market.”

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Leckner said he won’t let that happen because he doesn’t want to lose people, to which Randall replied, “You haven’t lost people.”

Fear or economics

Randall accused Conway of being led by fear due to his employer’s worker retention issues. Conway said it’s not about fear but labor economics, including studies on the “great resignation.”

“Right now, labor economics would tell you that this is not ‘do what we’ve always done before,’” he said. “We’re going to have to adjust to a new environment. I don’t know that I look at it as operating in fear as much as I look at it as trying to do right by the people that are working for us.”

Conway pointed out they were arguing about four employees’ pay. Weasner estimated their budgeted salary increases totaled about $10,500. Conway questioned how much this would affect the levy for a budget of over $3 million.

Randall said she felt it was worthwhile to save taxpayers $10,000 and levy just what the city needs. Stone said this would show sensitivity to the taxpayers.

“It’s not about the levy for me, it’s about whether it’s warranted,” said Randall. “There’s a solid chance that this country is going to go into a recession. Again, we don’t fix streets in this town.”

Conway repeated that it’s not about fear but about treating employees right. He said it sets a bad precedent to suggest “the only way you’re going to get anything out of this city is if you’re unionized.”

Randall argued against over-budgeting, which results in more money being levied from taxpayers than the city needs. She noted the city does not refund tax surpluses or use them to offset the next year’s levy.

Weasner said these surpluses may help another year when the tax levy falls short of city expenditures.

Budgeting, not negotiating

Noting that he and Erika were not going to agree, Conway questioned the point of continuing the work session. However, Weasner said she needed to know what budget to present at the council’s Truth in Taxation hearing on Dec. 13.

Leckner warned against confusing the issue, stressing that the workshop discussion was about setting a budget, while setting wages is for future negotiations and council action.

He also said that by dropping the budget too low,“we could be tying our hands for the negotiations, or we’re going to be trying to find money somewhere else.”

Randall urged reducing the salaries budget to a 4% increase across the board, calling it unlikely that negotiation results would exceed that. Conway recommended leaving the budget as-is.

Stone asked what would happen if some unions might refuse to settle for a 4% wage increase. Randall replied, “If that is the case, I hope the city does take it to mediation.”

Weasner said at least one union’s negotiations will probably go to mediation.

“I think these are the discussions that, every budget, has to be had,” said Randall, again urging the council not to budget for more than the city needs.

Leckner said in his time on the council, the city hasn’t had a lot of extra money. “That’s why we don’t do streets,” he said. “That’s why we don’t have extra money laying around to build big parks and things like that. We’re very tight with it.”

Randall disagreed, recalling surpluses every year she has been on the council, but acknowledged they have done better in recent years.

Weasner suggested budgeting wage increases of 4% across the board, “with a little variation based on knowledge.” The council generally agreed with the idea.

Randall also suggested having a closed session regarding union negotiation strategy. Weasner agreed to add this to the council’s Dec. 13 agenda.

MORE RELATED COVERAGE:
Department heads gave a report on the past year or two at a city council workshop on Jan. 24.

Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at rfish@parkrapidsenterprise.com or 218-252-3053.
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