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Raises OK’d for 70 city employees

A sizeable number of city employees will be getting an early Christmas present of sorts due to action by the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners.

During a meeting Thursday night, the board gave its unanimous blessing for pay raises to be granted for 70 municipal workers effective Dec. 1.

These mostly involve public safety positions in the city police and fire departments that have been struggling with vacancies in recent years, said to be resulting in part from personnel migrating to higher-paying jobs elsewhere.

“This is a good step to keep our people,” Commissioner Joe Zalescik said. “This is a long time coming.”

“It’s long overdue,” Commissioner Tom Koch agreed regarding the pay increase.

Both board members were referring to the fact that Thursday night’s move stems from a comprehensive pay and classification study launched in early 2020, targeting municipal positions here in comparison with other areas.

It was undertaken by an outside agency, the Piedmont Triad Regional Council, a Kernersville-based alliance of local government units in a 12-county region including Mount Airy and Surry County. That agency proposed updated salary ranges for Mount Airy positions as a result.

The matter basically has languished on the back burner since then, with COVID-19 striking during that time and other factors involved including the retirement of the city personnel director who spearheaded plans for the study.

Based on discussion at Thursday’s meeting, City Manager Stan Farmer, who began work here in January, dusted off the issue and spent the last couple of months reviewing local pay rates compared to other municipalities as part of the study process.

“Is it true that Pilot Mountain pays their police officers more than we do?” Commissioner Koch asked at one point, and was told this was indeed the case.

The pay raises are viewed as a way to not only retain existing employees, but bolster their ranks. “It helps us in recruiting,” the city manager said.

This does not involve any across-the-board salary increases — with the 70 workers to benefit part of an overall city work force of 168 positions budgeted for this fiscal year.

Most of the jobs targeted for the raises (37) are in the Mount Airy Fire Department, with 23 in the public works division. Five are included in the Parks and Recreation Department, four in the Fire Department and one in human resources.

“It’s about darn time that you got an increase,” was Commissioner Marie Wood’s message Thursday night to the affected employees.

“Tonight we took a major step in investing in our employees,” Mayor Ron Niland said of a need that has concerned him since he first took office in 2019, then as a commissioner.

“This is not the end,” Niland said of remaining vigilant with employee compensation in order to maintain an adequate personnel force for the city government.

Cost implications

“The next question is how to pay for this,” Farmer said.

He explained Thursday night that the funding for the salary increases will come from the existing 2022-2023 fiscal year budget, covering the period from July 1 of this year through June 30, 2023 — not requiring any new allocation.

Due to job openings not being filled, the municipality is $454,000 “to the good,” the city manager said of the money budgeted for personnel during that period.

The pay increases are projected to cost about $233,000 over the next seven months that are left in this fiscal year based on the number of employees involved and the Dec. 1 start date.

But Farmer says that in some cases the new rates will not apply then, because the Police Department must perform background checks for applicants which will result in hiring dates being pushed to a later time.

Thursday night’s action included votes on multiple aspects, including the proposed salary adjustments for public safety and other employees, approval of an ordinance amending the city personnel policy and a resolution implementing an updated position table.

All were greeted by favorable 4-0 votes, with Commissioner Jon Cawley absent. He had been the lone dissenter in a 4-1 decision in February 2020 to have the comprehensive pay and classification study done by the Piedmont Triad Regional Council.

Cawley consistently has urged caution with employee raises since they represent an ongoing expense once approved which can burden the municipal budget long term.

The updated position table approved Thursday night lists the various job titles in city government along with minimum, midpoint and maximum pay levels for each.

In stating the case for amending the city pay plan policy and salary position table, Farmer pointed out that an employee, either brought in new or promoted, starts at a “hiring rate.” Then he or she has a chance for a pay increase upon successfully completing a probationary period.

His proposal, approved by the board, will change that by discontinuing the hiring rate and starting employees at the minimum salary instead.

“This will help in recruiting employees, as we cannot continue to compete when hiring employees at five percent below the minimum salary for each position,” Farmer said in a memo to the commissioners before Thursday night’s meeting.



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