Aldermen need to keep public interest in mind

Published 6:00 pm Sunday, September 4, 2011

Whether it’s the sound of trees falling inthe woods or the refrigerator light staying on when the doorcloses, some questions about what happens when no one is aroundmake for light-hearted speculation.

    When the question involves citizens’ lack of attendance at publichearings and how officials then carry out their duties, it’s a muchmore serious matter.

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    Apparently, some officials – like Ward One Alderman Dorsey Cameron- believe that when citizens don’t attend public hearings on thebudget, the board members can proceed however they seefit. 

    Cameron expressed that line of reasoning during a budget worksession this week when he pointed out that no one came to thepublic hearing and said citizens should let officials know if theyhave concerns.

    Among the concerns in question is a 3 percent across-the-board payraise for all city employees, including elected officials. Theraise will boost aldermen from their current $16,713.14 a year toapproximately $17,047.14 annually.

    Fortunately, by opposing the pay raise plans to varying degrees,Ward Six Alderman David Phillips, Ward Four’s Shirley Estes andAlderman At Large Karen Sullivan made it known that they understandtheir obligation to represent the public’s best interests is notsomething to put aside just because the public is not present forbudget deliberations.

    “They hired you to represent them so that they don’t have to comein here,” Phillips said in response to Cameron’s observations.

    We agree – representative democracy is what undergirds ourgovernment. We elect our public officials and then expect them todo the job we hired them to do. We applaud Phillips, Estes andSullivan for doing that.

    To be sure, the aldermen’s portion of the pay raise represents onlyabout 1 percent of the approximately $225,000 needed to boostcompensation of city workers. And few are arguing that everydaycity employees don’t need a raise.

    But those raises further extend an already stretched budget.Salaries and benefits amount to 56 cents of every city dollarspent.

    As far as the aldermen’s part of the pay raise is concerned, theycould handle it in the time-honored manner and vote for it to takeeffect at the start of the next term in office. That couldentice a wider array of candidates to seek the position, and voterscould decide – in somewhat of a merit-pay determination – whetherincumbents deserve the additional compensation by eitherre-electing them or voting them out of office.

    In a related matter, it should be pointed out that aldermen are notconsidering a property tax increase. However, fees for water, sewerand solid waste services are going up a combined $1.50 a month.

    Aldermen would say those fees are unrelated to the city’s generalfund budget and have to be raised because user fees must supportthose water, sewer and solid waste services.

    That is true, but it’s also true that general fund actions likeemployee pay raises do impact – at least to some degree -enterprise fund accounts. Aldermen can’t raise the pay of a streetdepartment employee, who’s paid from the general fund, withoutdoing the same for a water or sewer department worker, who’s paidfrom those departments’ respective enterprise funds.

    From a business standpoint, any additional money allocated for payraises means that much less that is available to provide cityservices.

    Aldermen are expected to consider approval of the new city budgetat this Tuesday’s regular board meeting. The meeting, at 6:30 the city boardroom, is open to the public.

    Either by showing up at the meeting or calling aldermen beforehand,the public can still get their two cents’ worth in.