Council addresses a complicated situation involving employee pay raises

By Melanie Williamson

Vermilion City Council met on Monday, April 2, for a regular meeting. Each of the council committee chairs provided overviews of what was discussed at the various committee meetings before delving into new reports.

Mayor’s report: Mayor Jim Forthofer shared that letters have gone out concerning the Labor Health Care Committee. There will be a preliminary meeting to see who will be participating in the health care plan moving forward, and then they will move into discussing options. He also shared there will be an upcoming continuing education class for administration employees on Monday, April 16, covering ethics. The next class will be on cyber security and legal considerations for city technology and communications.

Pool fund: Mayor Forthofer also announced that donations to the pool fund can be made out to the City of Vermilion and dropped off with Anne maiden at city hall. He stated that the donations are tax deductible, and that Anne is keeping a spreadsheet of donations and Bob Cunicella will be sending out thank you notes. A shared that there is a fund-raising dinner being held on Sunday, April 22, from 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. at German’s Villa. Forthofer closed by sharing that he has donated to the pool fund and he wanted to formally challenge each member of council to also make a donation to the pool fund reminding them that all donations will be recorded.

Service director report: Service director Tony Valerius reported that prior to the most recent water bills being sent out they randomly checked 30 bills to ensure they were correct. He stated they were, and he is confident the problem is fixed.

He also reported that the electric is being removed from the sign and the shed by the entrance of the city’s new parking lot, so they will be able to remove everything shortly. Councilwoman Barb Brady asked if they can keep the power at the pole and put in an outlet to be used during community events, and Valerius responded that wouldn’t be a problem. In regards to the parking lot, mayor Forthofer stated that they can get four signs made for $400-$500 before the hardware to let people now it is free parking. Councilwoman-at-large Monica Stark asked about the entrance on the other side of the parking lot to see if they can do something to make it look more open and inviting. Valerius responded that they have to keep the guardrail there, but they can remove the gate and clean it up.

Finance report: Finance director Amy Hendricks reported that based on discussion at the Monday, March 26, committee meeting, she has been investigating funding sources to complete various projects to upgrade streets, water, and sewer systems. She went on to say that with the current financial position of the city, that is going to require important planning. The city has started working with Michael Prcela, a municipal financial advisor, and she and mayor Forthofer will be meeting with him soon to review his findings. Prcela will attend the Monday, April 9, finance committee meeting to also provide his findings to city council.

Hendricks also reported that she was able to close Fiscal Year 2017 and the auditors were already on site. She is working on several initiatives that will improve the processes in the finance department focusing on cross training and improved internal controls. These initiatives were recommended during the 2016 audit with the goal of making the work in the finance department more efficient and timely.

Law director report: Law Director Kenneth Stumphauzer addressed the council reiterated from a previous statement that he would not be asking for a raise due to the city’s current financial situation. However, there were two people in his department that he felt should be considered. He asserted that one employee has been with the department for many years and has been very good. She discovered she needs to make $20 to $40 more a month in order to qualify for benefits at retirement. The second employee is a paralegal, who Stumphauzer asserted is only making $16 an hour, which is very low for a paralegal. He wants the council to consider a $2 an hour raise for her. He went on to say she only works around 20 hours a week, so he feels the raises are inconsequential amounts.

Ballards: Valerius reported that the installation of the ballards is roughly two weeks out, and it will be done in conjunction with the concrete pouring. The traffic lights at Main street will be started soon. Valerius asserted that they require more coordination because a pole has to be moved. He also stated that they are working on the timing issues at West River Road and Liberty, and they are working on fixing that. Councilman John Gabriel asked if they were going to be cleaning up where the new poles were put in along Liberty Avenue including fixing the sidewalks where they were messed up and planting new grass. Valerius responded that they will be doing that.

Raise issues: Among the ordinances on the agenda were two first reading ordinances involving the passing of $1 an hour raises for two different city employees. Councilman Gabriel brought up these ordinances and it was explained in discussion that these raises were actually given December 31, 2016 by the previous mayor without council approval. Since all pay increases are required to go through council, they were tasks with either approving them now or denying them now.

Gabriel stated that these are two very good employees, who have been with the city for some time, but given the city’s current financial crisis and the fact they will be going into union negotiations soon, he didn’t feel they could approve the raises. However, he was concerned that if they simply voted no, that the two employees would then have to pay back the money they had received over the last year without approval, and he didn’t want that to happen either stating that he doesn’t want them to be punished by having to pay back money because this clearly wasn’t their fault. With all this in mind, he proposed to amend Section 1 of the ordinance to state the raise was approved starting December 31, 2016 and ending April 1, 2018. He explained that with this small change, they could bring their pay back to where it was without them owing the city anything. He also recommended waiving the three readings and voting that night, so the employees didn’t have to wait several more weeks to see what was going to happen.

Stark responded to Gabriel’s recommendation stating that this was a very hard decision to make either way. She went on to say that she feels if they approve the amendment they are still punishing them because they are taking away money they have been getting for over a year. She went to explain that they have been accustom to the increase in their pay, they likely adjusted their expenses when they received the raise, so ending it could cause a crunch for them personally. She went on to say the council is not giving a pay raise, they are merely correcting a clerical error. Mayor Forthofer also weighed in agreeing with Stark that the only error was that it didn’t go to council when it should have. He went on to say that the raise was given when they took on additional duties saving the city $15,000 by not having to hire another part-time person.

There was some back and forth discussion over whether or not the additional duties were still ongoing and whether or not the pay for additional duties was still justified. Councilman Steve Holovacs responded to the mayor’s statement about not having to hiring a part-time person asserting that since then the city has hired another full-time person, so he didn’t see any reason the two employees in questions should still be doing additional duties. Holovacs also reiterated a point Gabirel made stating that both of the employees are linked to the unions and with council going into union negotiations, they can’t ignore that.

Councilwoman Barb Brady went make to the argument over extra duties stating that they did take on extra duties at the time, but they are not anymore. She went to say that if the proposed raise had gone before council when it was given, it should have been passed as a provisional raise from the start. Hendricks added that there was a full-time payroll person at the time. Holovacs responded that they have added people in several positions over the last few years. He went to state that they can’t keep hiring people in a zero growth community.

Mayor Forthofer argued that they are making it sound like these raises caused the financial crisis. He went to say that the financial crunch is because of health care costs, unions, and new regulations that have increased the work of finance, and that ending the raises isn’t fair. Before voting on whether or not to pass the proposed amendment, Gabriel stated that he wasn’t on council last year, so he can’t say anything about where the city was a year ago. He went on to say that right now the city is in a financial crisis and getting ready for union negotiations, and he feels horrible about it because they are talking about two very good employees, but the city is not in a position to be approving raises.

The proposed amendment went to a vote and passed with Gabriel, Holmes, Brady, and Holovacs voting yes and Louka and Stark voting no. When the newly amended ordinances went to a vote, councilman Holmes added that it is unfortunate the proper rules were not followed at the time, but they have to consider the fact they are going into negotiations. Gabriel stated again that the city is in a financial crisis adding “we’re telling the community we don’t even have $30,000/$40,000 to open the pool…we can’t justify raises. I’m sorry.” Brady added that there is precedence for this ordinance; the city has done this before. The amended ordinances were passed unanimously.

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