The road to passing the 2009 budget got a little bumpy Tuesday when two Liberty Lake City Council members verbally sparred over a proposed amendment to the budget.
Much of thee evening’s discussion centered on the proposed cost-of-living increase to non-union city employees, which was cut from 5.9 percent to 3.9 percent. Employees can also get an additional 2 percent step increase each year based on merit. Council member Brian Sayrs proposed a budget amendment that would give employees a 5.9 percent raise, but eliminate all merit step increases.
“The amount stays the same, but it preserves the steps,” he said. “Either way, it’s still 5.9 percent.”
Council member Neal Olander didn’t like the idea. “It’s a little bit of subterfuge,” he said.
Sayrs reacted strongly to the comment. “You call something I do ‘subterfuge’ again, we’ll take it outside,” he said. After several exclamations from other council members, he added, “No, I’m serious.”
Sayrs later apologized for his comments. “It just really hit me wrong,” he said.
Sayrs’ amendment failed. “I think it’s more important to earn a raise rather than be given a raise,” said council member Susan Schuler. “Merit pay is there for a reason. I think it’s the wrong way to do it. Every dollar counts.”
An amendment proposed by David Crump that would have cut about $20,000 from the mayor’s legislative budget and used it to restore the 5.9 percent cost-of-living increase also failed. Members of the city’s police department, who are represented by a union, negotiated a 5.9 percent cost of living increase for 2009.
The city has traditionally given the same raise to non-union employees, but the employees said they were willing to have the COLA decreased because of the declining economy. Under the original proposed budget, employees would have seen 7.9 percent raises when the COLA and step increases were added together.
“Eight percent is irresponsible to me,” said council member Patrick Jenkins. “A six percent raise is great. If there’s more costs to cut, we should cut more costs.”
The idea of cutting the mayor’s legislative budget did find support. Crump proposed a second amendment to cut $15,000 from there and put it into the parks and city beautification fund. In 2008 the city only spent 61 percent of the funds available for legislative uses, Crump said. “The legislative branch is a little flush. Legislative has not been touched. There’s not been a decrease. This is too much money and I want to give it back.”
Crump’s second proposal was approved and the council passed the 2009 budget unanimously, setting employee cost of living increases at 3.9 percent.
In other business, the council approved an ordinance that would bank the 1 percent property tax increase the council voted against last month. It would allow the city to consider a 1 percent tax increase for 2010 based on the city’s current assessed valuation. If the assessed valuation were to go down next year, the amount the city collects would also be reduced. The ordinance would basically allow the city to lock in the current assessed valuation even if values were to go down.
Jenkins was concerned that if the council uses the banked capacity next year, the city would actually be raising property taxes by 2 percent. “We can decide not to use that,” said administrative services manager Jessica Platt.
“You’re preserving authority, not mandating yourself a certain amount of money,” Sayrs said. “This is not just a today decision. It’s a future of Liberty Lake decision. The question is not how much is charged. The question is how much authority is there. It’s not banking money. The money is gone. It’s banking capacity.”
The ordinance earned the support of all council members present except Jenkins. Councilmember Judi Owens was absent.