A couple of contentious issues clouded the discussions at the Pagosa Springs Town Council’s special meeting on Dec. 13, and while the time crunch is on because of statutory requirements to have a balanced budget in place before the start of the new year, the fight over money is by no means over.
“They came to an agreement on salary adjustments at that meeting,” Town Manager David Mitchem explained later, “so town council has approved a seven-percent salary adjustment for town employees across the board.”
Council member David Schanzenbaker, however, did not characterize the meeting as coming to an agreement, considering the final vote on the 2013 budget was five in favor and two against.
“A last-minute compromise addition was a seven-percent across the board pay increase for town staff, regardless of tenure,” Schanzenbaker explained. “This happened a couple days before the meeting and was in the approved budget. I’m not sure how you’d describe this as a compromise; you’d have to ask David Mitchem or the mayor.”
The controversy began in early November when Mike Swallow, from Personnel System and Services, presented a salary survey to town council at one of their special work sessions to discuss the 2013 budget.
One of the slides from Swallow’s PowerPoint presentation showed a graph with a comparison between the actual salaries of the town staff and the average salaries from a survey group, and his comment at the bottom of the slide stated, “The chart indicates that on average the town positions are behind their peers by 18.4 percent.”
“The proposal that I made is based on the general principal that this salary study is viable to consider,” council member Don Volger said, beginning the debate at the Dec. 6 work session. “It was professionally done and the conclusions it came to were defensible and justifiable, and obviously the study shows that our employees are below the curve, based on the average for other communities and businesses.”
While Volger’s proposal called for adjusting every town employee’s salary so they would at least be up to the minimum curve on Swallow’s graph, Mayor Ross Aragon said, “I think one of the things we should consider as a board is the economic climate. We hear about the fiscal cliff, and it’s affecting us. I shudder to think about what’s happening in Egypt. It’s crazy, because nobody’s working. Spain and all of those countries — that situation is going to impact the United States. For us to say we are doing good, we’re not doing good. That’s one of the things we have to consider: Can we hang on?”
“My first question,” council member Darrel Cotton asked, “is can you point me to, in the general public, somebody making fifty-five thousand dollars a year?” Cotton then went on to present his counterargument, despite some heated debate concerning the accuracy of his math by Town Clerk April Hessman, that town staff already makes more money than most private citizens in the community.
“I disagree with you,” council member Kathie Lattin countered, “because I think you’re not taking what the base wage is. You’re adding in all of the benefits. I’m telling you that somebody might say they’re making thirty-thousand dollars a year, but they’re not taking into consideration the benefit programs they have, so we’re not comparing apples to apples. When I consider all the companies I called and the research I did, I stand very strongly with Don’s proposal. I think that us going up to the bottom line …”
“I gotta go back to the survey,” Cotton interrupted. “It’s a public sector survey, and that’s exactly my problem. The public sector has become a protected class that is entitled to a finer standard of living then the people they theoretically work for.
“I’m old, but I remember when public servants got squat. They did their job because they wanted to help. We had a sheriff who supplied his own damn car, his own gas, and got beat up all on his own for a couple hundred bucks a month. Now that was a public servant.
“Now, in my mind, it has swung the other way and because of unions the public sector is driving the numbers. I just think it is wrong in this economic atmosphere to tell the people, ‘I know you lost your car, I know you’re losing your house, and I know your kids aren’t getting squat for Christmas, but hey, we’ve got extra money so we are going to pass it around to the town employees.’
“A fifty-five thousand dollar annual median income is not being under compensated. Damn few people have that kind of income in Archuleta County. Just because somebody got paid that up in Denver, I don’t care. You can’t do public sector studies. They’re biased. It is so wrong to pass out a quarter of a million dollars (the amount Volger’s proposal would have cost the town) when people are losing their homes and moving out because they can’t live here. They can’t make it.”
“And it’s those people’s money we are talking about spending,” council member Tracy Bunning added. “It’s really easy to be generous and to be magnanimous when it’s not your money. You know …”
“I resent that,” Volger interrupted. “You know I think that I do treat it as my money, and a portion of it is my money, and I want to manage it. I’m thinking about the community as a whole, and to say that we’re not, or that I personally am not, taking that into consideration … well, I resent that.”
“You know what,” Bunning countered, “I resent you interrupting me. I was quiet, I listened to you and I didn’t interrupt you once.”
When Volger apologized, Bunning continued, “I think we need to be reasonable. We need to take into account the people that are paying taxes, because we’re talking about spending their money. I want to make sure we understand that. It’s two hundred fifty thousand dollars a year.
“We were concerned about the fact that for four years our employees didn’t get any raises,” Bunning explained, referring the reason behind the town hiring Swallow to do his survey, “and I am concerned about that, but two hundred fifty thousand dollars a year over the next four years? See, this isn’t a one-time thing. This is every year, and the town would be obligated to pay that every year.
“I’m not suggesting that you’re being unreasonable in wanting to compensate the employees,” Bunning concluded, “I just think that we’re not being responsible when we look at what this obligation really means.”
In the end, it was decided to give an across-the-board raise of 7 percent to all town employees to make up for no one receiving cost of living increases for the last four years, then to spend more time studying the issue early in 2013 so that it doesn’t crop up at the last minute during next year’s budget season.