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by A.C. Hall

In what should be their final budget work session, the White Settlement City Council made a few changes to the budget on Monday afternoon.  The big issue that remained up for discussion was a raise for city employees.  Up until last week, the budget was balanced with no deficit.  This was thanks in large part to the negotiating done with insurance companies that kept employee health insurance rates steady.  However, restoring the library budget led to a deficit of nearly $100,000.  That deficit would grow when council decided on a raise for the city employees.  
The last time this issue was discussed, the differences between an across the board cost of living raise for employees and a targeted merit raise for only some employees were discussed.  City Manager Jim Ryan stated on Monday that he’d prefer to go with a cost of living raise for everyone.  Mayor Ronald A. White said he agreed with this, saying he doesn’t feel like the Human Resources department has a proper system in place right now to determine who deserves merit raises and who doesn’t.
With the style of raise decided, council got down to deciding what percentage should be given for this raise.  Mayor White said he’d done some research into the subject and found the average cost of living raise being given was around 3%.
Human Resources Director Mark Huff spoke about the city salaries. White Settlement pay is on the low end compared to other similar cities.  Council member Mike Arnold said he doesn’t want the City to lose good employees because they get offered higher wages at nearby cities.  An example of this happening at least six times in the last year was given.
Arnold went on to propose a 4% cost of living raise for city employees.  With a majority of council members agreeing to this, the raise was calculated at 4%.  This raise will cost an additional $227,840 annually, bringing the budget deficit to around $325,000 for the upcoming fiscal year.
The $10.1 million bond that council is using to fund all projects and capital purchases was also discussed.  Council member Danny Anderson addressed some of the misconceptions he felt some people had about this money. He doesn’t think everyone understands how the council is going to use these funds.
“This is the first year that we’ve done a five year plan,” Anderson said.
Mayor White also commented on this. He said it is not just a giant pot of money council is going crazy with.
“It’s a five year plan; not a one year plan.  It’s not ten million dollars for us to go hog wild with,” Mayor White said.
It has been mentioned by city staff on several occasions that all of the money won’t be spent in one year, but this is the first time anyone on the council has clearly stated that the bond was intended to fund multiple years worth of projects and purchases.
The 4 cent property tax increase was also brought up.  It was again stated that the increase is necessary to handle the debt payment associated with the $10.1 million bond.
“We really don’t have any choice,” Mayor White said regarding the 4 cent property tax increase.
Council asked Finance Director Phil Bray for some specific numbers on what the 4 cent increase means to homeowners in White Settlement.  Bray said a home worth $100,000 would have to pay $28.80 more in property taxes.  For a home valued around $50,000, which is the average value of a home in White Settlement, Bray said the taxes will go up about $14.
As these discussions continued, it was also mentioned that not everything people pay in taxes is because of the City, as they also pay taxes to the school district.
Council member Elzie Clements shared some of his concerns regarding spending.  Clements said he was against the purchase of a new Fire Department command vehicle, saying the current one doesn’t get used much.
Clements also asked about the purchase of a new secondary bus.  He was told the current secondary bus does not have air conditioning, and that one big use of the secondary bus was to bus kids around during the summer who take part in the YMCA program.  This is part of an agreement between the City and the YMCA.  Assistant City Manager Jeff James told the council that most of the kids in that program live in White Settlement.
Council also spoke briefly about automatic ticket writers and body cameras for the Police Department.  There is a state grant for body cameras that was mentioned as council discussed the type of cameras Police Chief J.P. Bevering wants to purchase.  These cameras won’t be available until some time next year, but Chief Bevering wants to wait for them because they will integrate with existing camera systems already in use by the WSPD.
One final item discussed by council was adding in funds to get a new security system for the White Settlement Historical Museum.  Ultimately, council appeared to agree to use money out of the hotel/motel tax revenue fund to pay for security upgrades to the museum.
With the budget discussions at an end, city staff will now work to draw up a final budget that will go before council for final approval at their meeting on Sept. 8.