FARMINGTON — City employees will receive a 2 percent, across-the-board raise next year.

Although Mayor Tommy Roberts, City Manager Rob Mayes, Councilwoman Gayla McCulloch and Councilman Dan Darnell supported the wage decision, Councilman Jason Sandel and Councilwoman Mary Fischer said the decision puts the city and its employees in worse shape for years to come.

Despite the 2 percent raise, it is less than called for under the city's pay plan for its employees.

The wage debate came in the midst of a budget discussion at Tuesday's City Council work session.

Council was still split after nearly three hours dissecting the budget. Sandel and Fischer voted against adoption on the grounds that the city cannot afford or sustain a wage increase. Roberts cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of adoption.

The city's preliminary budget will be sent to the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration for approval. The City Council is scheduled to adopt a final budget in two weeks.

"I'm all for the employees, but I certainly do not think that now is the time for a raise," Fischer said. "I think sometimes we lose focus of the fact that it's the public who's paying for all this, and I don't see that our economy at this point or even a year from now is going to justify giving raises.

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For Fischer and Sandel, the central issue was not whether the city's employees deserve a raise. It was whether the city could continue to pay those increased wages.

Toward the beginning of the budget discussion, Roberts said that the city could give employees a 2 percent raise and not build those increased costs into the city's recurring expenses and operational base.

In other words, employees could see that raise taken away during next year's budget cycle if there is not enough revenue to sustain it.

"If you give a raise, then take it away, then what you're doing is decreasing a person's wage, and that to me, is the first step to absolute destruction of morale," Sandel said. "Anytime you start decreasing their wages, it's just — it's fraught with problems. I actually have promoted the same idea as what Councilwoman Fischer has said, which is, if we don't have the budget for it, let's not increase wages. But if the will of the council is to increase wages, then I certainly would not support any sort of idea of predetermining that they're going to have it taken away in a year."

For Mayes, giving city employees the 2 percent raise is simply a cost of doing business.

"We're a service organization," he said.

If the cost of a police car goes up by 2 percent in a year, the city wouldn't hesitate to pay it, Mayes said.

"I would suggest that the police department is not the (Crown Victoria), it's the police officer," he said. "I would say that across the board. It's our people that provide these services. We are operating with less people. If you do the calculations, at 7 percent over the last five years, that's $14 million (of savings)."

Overall, the budget is balanced and fair, Mayes said.

"It's reasonable," he said. "We've demonstrated that it's likely that we'll be using a very limited amount of cash, possibly no cash at the end of the day with the way things are lining up."

Roberts maintained that he is comfortable with a one-time raise for city employees.

"It's just a matter of whether we build it into the base, or don't put it into the base," he said. "Once we build into the base, we're very reluctant to manage those costs by terminating people or by cutting back salaries. I just think that this is one of those things where given the economic picture that we're presented with, we should take a bit of a more cautious approach to it."

Darnell said that employees will be facing a variety of cost-of-living increases in the coming year, and into the future through rising health insurance and contributions to public employee retirement accounts.

Giving employees a raise this year and then taking it away in the next year will take away too much income from city employees, he said.

"It just seems to me that if we're going to give the 2 percent increase, it should be in the base," Darnell said.

McCulloch brought a different perspective.

"In our business, we've had to take away benefits, and we've had to decrease wages," she said. "So I know that the private sector has done it, and may have to do it again. Philosophically, I understand not building (wages) into the base. To survive, we may have to do that."

Greg Yee can be reached at gyee@daily-times.com; 505-564-4606. Follow him on Twitter @GYeeDT.