Council: ‘No more excuses’ on budget

Published 10:29 pm Thursday, April 16, 2015

Promising a renewed effort to fully fund a school budget request that would raise teacher pay, City Council members voted on Wednesday to examine revenue projections to see if the money might be there to make it happen.

Teachers flooded a public hearing on the budget to plead for a fully funded school request that would provide $3.9 million more than last year’s budget. After listening to 31 speakers — the vast majority of whom were teachers — council members said they believe the teachers deserve the money and that they can give it to them.

“We need to completely fund the schools,” Councilman Tim Johnson said. “The money is here. I think we can find the money, and I honestly don’t want to give up on it.”

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Johnson said he believed the schools could be fully funded even without the proposed 4-cent tax increase.

“Everyone on this council has some ideas,” he said. “We need to throw it out there and see what we can do.”

A compensation study for the school system, for which the city mostly footed the bill, showed teachers in the middle of the pay scale make significantly below the market value. It would cost $3.88 million to bring them up to par, according to the study.

“We paid for this comp study, and we got what we asked for,” Councilman Roger Fawcett said. “We have got to find a way this year to get it done. There is no more excuses and reasons we can’t do it. It’s inexcusable for us to have lost the experienced number of teachers that we’ve lost in the last couple of years in this city.”

Teachers packed the council chambers and sat in folding chairs in a lobby just outside the doors. Loud rounds of applause punctuated each speaker who talked about teacher raises.

A couple of speakers wanted council members to avoid tax increases, but most of the council members — Tim Johnson being the notable exception — said they didn’t think most people would mind a tax increase if it went toward teacher raises.

“There shouldn’t be any citizen in this city that complains about four pennies for education,” Fawcett said.

Mayor Linda T. Johnson’s comments followed a similar logic.

“I truly believe and understand that you all need the $3.88 million,” she said. “I get it, I see it and I support it. The question is where do we get it from, and I think that’s easy, really easy. Four pennies on a $200,000 house … is $6.66 cents a month. It’s less than you go to any fast food restaurant. It’s a very small thing to do to value our teachers.”

Both Linda Johnson and Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett said they have talked to people who don’t mind paying the extra taxes if it goes toward education.

But council members made it clear they want the hike to go toward teacher raises, not administration.

“If it goes at the top, I’m going to be out trying to crucify somebody,” Fawcett said.

Some speakers had suggested taking the needed money out of the city’s rainy-day fund, but Councilman Mike Duman said that would jeopardize the city’s financial position.

“I will not support doing anything to jeopardize our financial status, especially in regards to obtaining that AAA rating, which is not an easy thing to do,” Duman said. “We cannot afford to regress.”

Duman made a motion to direct the city manager to get with the treasurer and commissioner of the revenue and examine revenue projections on smaller streams like the personal property, business license, lodging and tobacco taxes.

“You look at the trends, I think we can afford to be not quite as conservative with some of the subjective numbers,” he said.

Increases to the lodging and tobacco taxes already are proposed in the budget.

The motion passed on a unanimous vote. Council members seemed excited about the possibilities.

“Let’s look at it and see if we can make this work,” Councilman Don Goldberg said.