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Council hopes to get employees above poverty level

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By Carolyn Ten Broeck, Editor

As the city’s budget season winds down, the Williston City Council is scrambling for ways to bring its lowest paid employees above the poverty level.

At its second budget workshop last week, the council spent the better part of its session listening to a proposal by City Manager Scott Lippmann that would raise salaries.

The concerning part? The city will need more than $198,000 in additional funds to make it happen.

Lippmann spent a considerable amount of time creating an updated pay scale that could raise salaries to at least $25,000 annually. The manager said that base rate is the poverty level for a family of four.

Councilman Justin Head said the proposal took a “skewed approach” because while $25,000 may be the poverty level for a family of four, there are city employees who are single or who may have more than four in their household.

“This causes me heartburn,” Head said. “That 18 percent will be paid by someone – the resident – who got a 2 percent increase – maybe.”

“Some of these people didn’t get raises for seven years,” Lippmann said, explaining why some employees would get significant pay increases while others would not.

To reach the $25,000 level, some employees would receive an 18 percent salary increase under the proposed plan.

The manager started the proposal with a pay scale that was put into place by a manager prior to him, he said. Lippmann has been the city manager almost six years.

“What is a fair living wage to attract the caliber and quality of employees that we need and retain them?” He asked.

Lippmann said he did not research the salaries and wages of other cities when making his pay scale proposal. Comparing apples to apples becomes difficult, he said, when trying to find cities that provide comparable services to Williston because most of those cities are much larger and have larger tax bases.

Councilman Charles Goodman said if the plan helped attract and retain employees, he could support it – maybe even with a millage rate increase. That remark drew chuckles from several in the workshop because Goodman has often opposed any millage increase during his tenure on the council. Last year, he wanted a higher millage rate due to health care costs and a 3 percent across the board employee raise but was out voted by the rest of the council.

This year the council set its tentative rate at 6.25 mills, an increase over the 2017-2018 rate of 5.8627 mills.

A tentative millage rate can be reduced but it cannot be raised. The council will hold its first hearing to set the final millage rate at 6:50 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11. The final hearing before budget and millage approval is 6L50 p.m. two weeks later on Sept. 25.

Utility Supervisor CJ Zimoski said he has a difficult time finding and retaining qualified workers for his departments. Often he says, someone takes a position with Williston, gets trained and then is able to find a comparable job for better pay.

“And they’re not just staying in the same line of work,” Zimoski said, explaining of his crew left for a hardware store because the pay was better.

Goodman suggested Lippmann’s pay scale be added to the Sept. 11 agenda for a council vote since the council cannot take action during a workshop.

Most agreed, but Council President Nancy Wininger said she simply could not support it due to it costing the city $198,000 more.

The money, she was told by Lippmann and finance director Stephen Bloom, would have to come from reserves and contingencies.

Wininger said monies are already being taken from reserves for other projects and expenses and she doesn’t want to draw down Williston’s ace in the hole any further.

Goodman said that’s why it should be put on a meeting agenda to get all that out in the open.

Bloom’s current $10.4 million budget does not include Lippmann’s proposal. It does however contain another 3 percent across the board pay raise. The fiscal impact for the 3 percent allocation is about $75,000.

Should the council choose Lippmann’s plan, Bloom said the 3 percent would not be added to most employees thereby saving about $48,000.

Wininger said $150,000 was more palatable. Bloom also pointed out that there are contingencies built into the budget each year and many are never spent, so that $150,000 figure might could be pared down as well.

According to the budget documents prepared for the council, the city will employee 93 people in FY 2018-2019, including the council and mayor. Other departments include: Administration 9, Police 25, Fire 28, Public Works 20 and Airport 5.