KINGMAN - The Kingman City Council on Monday narrowly rejected giving a 1 percent raise to all city employees in the coming fiscal year, instead voting to use the money to preserve the Kingman Area Regional Transit system's Saturday bus service.
The vote came following an impassioned plea by Councilman Ray Lyons who first proposed the citywide raise at a city budget workshop April 9. Lyons claimed the raise would bolster morale among the city's employees, who have not received a raise since July 2007, and would help to retain some employees who might otherwise be swayed by new job opportunities coming to the city this year, such as the Nucor steel plant and Hualapai Mountain Medical Center.
Lyons said that Kingman has had difficulty recruiting and retaining talented city employees in the past. He pointed specifically to 2005, when, as a member of a committee designed to study city compensation, Lyons learned that Kingman pays among the lowest wages of any city in Arizona.
"We couldn't hire anybody because no one could work as cheap for what our wages were," Lyons said. "Our employees were leaving right and left because wages were so low, especially the Police Department; they were all going to (the Department of Public Safety)."
That year, Lyons said, Council decided to gradually raise citywide pay to bring the city into at least the 50th percentile of Arizona cities. Instead, he said, the city only gave raises in 2006 and 2007, and has failed to follow through since then.
"Now we're falling behind again," he said.
"We don't have the retainment problem because there's nowhere to go, basically, but that's going to change, and that could change soon."
Lyons added that, having been a blue-collar worker all his life, he always received raises. A token cost of living increase, he said, was the least the city could do. "What I suggested was only 1 percent, which is like two loaves of bread a week," he said. "That's not much, but for some people, it makes a difference."
Lyons' proposal won support from councilman Kerry Deering, who agreed that Council had promised to bring city employees' wages in line with other cities, and had failed to do so. "Those people are here now, they're dedicated employees, and I think that we need at least 1 percent."
Vice Mayor Janet Watson, however, noted that even if city employees were given a 1 percent raise, it would cost the city several hundred thousand dollars and would likely force the city to make further staffing cuts on top of the 33 positions it already has left unfilled.
"I don't think that I'm in the state of mind to think to work out a 1 percent raise for them by letting more people go," Watson said, eliciting applause from the audience.
Councilwoman Carole Young agreed with Watson, arguing that while she would love to give employees a raise, there were already too many positions being left unfunded, and she did not want to risk even more.
"We have two positions in the fire department and two positions in the police department that we can't fund," Young said.
"I would rather not give raises now and not have to lay off in the third or fourth quarter this year. We've had residents who've been laid off, people whose salaries have been frozen, there's employees out there cashing furlough days right now, employers taking paid holidays away from their employees.
"Right now, I don't think it's the right time to do something."
Councilman Keith Walker echoed Watson and Young, adding that the city should hold off on a raise at least until it knows for sure whether the state Legislature plans on raiding the city's share of state gas tax revenues.
"As a business owner, when my sales are down, I don't go handing out raises, I'm sorry," Walker said. "You tighten your belt and hope that next year you have funds coming in."
Councilwoman Robin Gordon suggested that, in lieu of a raise, the city could show its appreciation for employees by offering some other form of compensation, such as an extra paid holiday.
City Manager Jack Kramer noted, however, that such a move would still rack up significant costs to the city.
Young ultimately made the motion to leave the raise off the next fiscal year's budget, with Watson seconding. The motion passed by a narrow 4-3 vote, with Watson, Young, Mayor John Salem and Gordon in favor and Lyons, Walker and Deering against.
In siding with the nay votes, Walker said he did not want to give employees a raise right away, but still wanted to keep the possibility on the table.
Immediately following that vote, Council quickly voted to maintain funding for KART's Saturday services, which Lyons had originally proposed cutting in order to help fund the citywide raise. The swift vote drew the ire of one audience member, Elsie Taylor, a regular KART rider who had spent the entire three-hour meeting waiting to speak on the issue, only to watch the vote occur with a minimum of discussion and no public input.
"I've been here all this time, missing medication and not even knowing how I'm going to get home to hear the KART discussion, and it seems to me like it was bypassed for a lot of things," Taylor said. By moving the item to the end of the evening's lengthy agenda, she argued that Council had made it very difficult for those who rely on KART to come to the meeting, since they would have no guarantee of getting home.
"It's eliminating any possibility for people who utilize this service to have any say in anything or to have any input," she said.
"It's almost as if it were by design to make it difficult and not necessary for you to participate; just the very fact that your meetings are held at this hour and there's no transportation, by the way, to get home."
Taylor went on to say that, despite having very little advance notice, she came to the meeting to speak for her fellow KART patrons, particularly those with no other means to get from one place to another.
"Many people really need it. I realize we're not a majority, and I realize public transportation is not profitable, but I've been all over this country and I've been to many major cities, and I've never known of a public transportation system being profitable." she said.
"It is a service, and one very necessary for, maybe the minority people, the 'have-nots' in the view of many, but I think it's extremely necessary."
Taylor also noted that KART employees would effectively lose their jobs if the citywide raise had gone through. Considering how many other sectors have been withholding raises due to the ongoing recession, Taylor said city employees should follow the example and tighten their belts - after all, everyone else is.
"These economic times are not conducive to raises," she said. "Many people are just grateful to still have a job."
Following the meeting, Taylor was able to catch a ride home with one of several KART employees who were in attendance.