Winston-Salem City Council Member Dan Besse said he’s upset that the proposed 2019-20 city budget keeps a 59% pay increase that members of the city council received in April.

Besse said he will call for a rollback if the council doesn’t grant city employees a merit pay increase for the new budget year, which starts July 1.

Besse’s proposed merit increase would raise taxes by a penny over the 4-cent increase already planned for the fiscal year 2019-20.

Besse made his remarks to the Winston-Salem Journal at the conclusion of a meeting of the finance committee of the city council, which looked to have wrapped up budget talks on Thursday.

In April, the salary of council members increased from $11,465 to $18,220 a year. The increase was part of an overall adjustment in city salaries based on the results of what other cities were paying employees. The increase was part of the current 2018-19 budget.

The mayor’s salary rose from $14,657 to $23,400 a year, although Mayor Allen Joines puts his pay into an account for aiding community groups and activities, City Manager Lee Garrity said.

The proposed 2019-20 budget cuts any merit-pay increases for city employees. The merit increase amounted to an average 2% increase in the current 2018-19 budget.

The merit increase was cut out by city administrators in their bid to limit any increase in the city’s property-tax rate to 4 cents for every $100 in property valuation. The 4-cent increase represents the money it takes to pay for $122 million in general obligation bonds that voters approved in 2018.

“In fairness to city employees, if the council concludes that we cannot afford to give them a merit increase, then the elected officials should share the pain and forego the market adjustment for us that took effect in April,” Besse said.

He argues that the council can’t afford to let city pay rates slip back after much effort to get them increased to market rates. But other council members have been saying that residents don’t need any tax increase beyond what they are absorbing because of the bonds.

Besse said he turned down his increase in April and assumed other council members would not want the increase since employees were not getting merit raises.

“I didn’t check to see it was in the fine print of the budget” the council is considering for 2019-20, Besse said.

City officials said a council pay rollback would save $68,750 in the coming fiscal year.

“That would pay a police officer’s salary,” Besse said.

Council Member John Larson, reached Thursday night for comment, said that the increase for council members was started in the current budget and carried over, and he doesn’t see why Besse is expressing shock now.

“Apparently he didn’t pay attention to last year’s budget,” Larson said, adding that he did not turn down his increase.

“It is based on a survey of salaries of what equivalent council members are getting paid throughout the state,” Larson said. “It has already been implemented and we will receive it.”

Garrity said Besse is the only council member who has refused the pay increase.

The only change the city council’s finance committee made to the proposed budget Thursday was to add a contribution of $5,000 to a group called Winston-Salem Ambassadors, which welcomes newcomers to town. It’ would be the first time the fledgling group has received money from the city.

Otherwise, the shape of the proposed budget seemed unchanged from previous discussions. The finance committee meeting lasted less than 15 minutes Thursday.

Besse, who is not a member of the Finance Committee, attended the session and said, when given the chance to speak, that he had discovered that the city could increase the tax rate by a “flat 1 cent” if it delayed the 2% merit increase until August or September.

Last week, Besse had called for a tax increase for merit pay, but Council Member Robert Clark, the chairman of the finance committee, said during Thursday’s session that he had polled committee members and found no support for Besse’s idea.

Besse said that on June 17, when the council is scheduled to vote on adopting the 2019-20 budget, he will have two motions handy: First, the one to increase the tax rate by one more cent for merit pay. And if that fails, a second motion to reduce council salaries back to former levels.

The city’s tax rate is currently 59.74 cents for every $100 of taxable property. With the bond-driven 4-cent increase, the rate would rise to 63.74 cents. A penny beyond that for Besse’s merit plan would increase the rate to 64.74 cents.

For the owner of property valued at $150,000, the current tax payment of $896.10 would increase to $956.10 with a 4-cent increase. The extra cent Besse wants to add would raise that homeowner’s city tax bill to $971.10.

Council Member Annette Scippio said Thursday night that if council members want to do a salary rollback she’s fine with that, although she thinks council work “is like a full-time job.”

“I don’t feel as sensitive as Dan does, because I put in and other council members put in a whole lot of time,” Scippio said.

Besse said some council members are “upset at me for raising this issue,” but he declined to say who. Some on the council say the higher pay encourages people to run who might not otherwise be able afford being on the council.

“They are right, but by definition any of us who are already serving are finding ways to get by,” Besse said. “We knew what it paid when we decided to run.”

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wyoung@wsjournal.com 336-727-7369 @wyoungWSJ

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