Council approves 2018 budget

Employees, taxpayers to share the pain

Jill Schramm/MDN Council member Stephan Podrygula, right, speaks at Thursday’s meeting as council member Lisa Olson looks on at left.

The property tax on a median-price home in Minot would go up $192 to satisfy the 2018 budget given final approval by the Minot City Council Thursday.

The council dropped about two mills from a preliminary budget, leaving an estimated 106.46 mills. That’s about $872 for the city’s share of the property-tax bill on a home valued at a median $182,000.

The Minot City Council rejected a proposal to swap out reduced employee wage increases with other budget cuts, instead adopting a final 2018 budget Thursday with no change from the budget approved on first reading a week earlier.

City Manager Tom Barry, working with department heads, found $531,622 in budget cuts that were offered as an alternative to lowering the proposed pay increases in the preliminary budget by half.

The council heard from employees supporting the raises and residents opposed to them.

Jill Schramm/MDN City employees work on repairs to the landfill road in southwest Minot last week.

“At the end of the day, I don’t see how you can stand in front of the community and justify raising wages at this point of time in Minot,” said resident Travis Zablotney. He questioned making alternative cuts if the city claims to have done a good job of cutting with the preliminary budget.

“If our budget is right to start with, if it’s a true, valid, no-frills budget,” he said, “the only thing we are going to cut out is service to the citizens, the taxpaying citizens, those who already took a wage cut, those who have to pay more taxes.”

Krista Mattice and Aaron Moss with the Fraternal Order of Police and Minot Police Department spoke about the need to address police officer salaries to attract and retain personnel.

“Failing to fully fund the pay plan doesn’t paint the whole picture of the threat to public security,” Moss said. “We have become a training grounds. People enter the profession, learn the trade and move on to other jurisdictions who have better compensation packages.”

Police Chief Jason Olson reported 46 percent of officers have less than five years of experience. Five years is the time Moss estimated is necessary to become proficient. The median officer time with the department is six years.

Zablotney objected to council member Lisa Olson voting on pay raises because her husband is police chief.

Chief Olson responded to say he repeatedly has asked the city manager to freeze his pay and take it off the table. He suggested the council vote on his wages separately.

“I don’t want the fact that my spouse is on the council to in any way decide this issue, and I am perfectly happy with the wage freeze if that will address that issue,” he said.

Mayor Chuck Barney vouched for Lisa Olson’s ethics, which ended the discussion on conflict.

Council member Stephan Podrygula called employee salaries reasonably comparable to other private and public sector jobs. However, he said county, state and Minot State University employees have full government-paid coverage for health insurance. Minot Public School employees have out-of-pocket premium costs that are significantly less than those of city employees. Minot employees pay $737 a year for individual coverage and $6,712 a year for a family plan.

“That really is a huge amount of money, and I don’t know if we can continue to penalize our city employees, not just in public safety, for that kind of hit in terms of their health insurance,” Podrygula said.

“We are not talking about cutting anybody’s wages here. What we are talking about is reducing the amount of a raise. I think in a very difficult budget time that is a reasonable point to begin a discussion on,” council member Josh Wolsky said. “This may not be the first difficult budget we may have to encounter. We may be looking at this for a number of years to come, depending on the economic situation in Minot. Every increase we put on the table today is something that is going to be hard to overcome in the future potentially.”

Wolsky noted the health insurance increase comes to $30 for single coverage and $276 for a family plan. Even with a reduced wage increase, those costs will be covered, he said.

The insurance premium increase will occur in January. In the budget adopted by the council, employee pay is reduced by delaying the regular pay plan increase until July.

Wolsky called the pay reduction a gesture to taxpayers.

“I think the citizens of Minot need to see us make a gesture – that we are paying attention, that we understand and appreciate the very significant increase we are putting upon them with this large increase in mills. And by and large, there is nothing we can do about that because, unless we want to really dig into and really start cutting services, this is the cost of our government,” Wolsky said.

Council member Shannon Straight said support for employees must be balanced by the tax burden on residents.

“I would always love to pay more, but under the circumstances, I just don’t think we can do that tonight,” he said.

Council member Shaun Sipma also said reducing the pay raise leaves an unsavory taste, but it is not a pay freeze. He added he also cannot support the alternative budget cuts.

The reductions proposed by the city manager included eliminating a recycling transfer station, some extra help, purchase of an air compressor and street mower, attendance at a conference and other items on a list of 41 cuts. It included pursuing grant funding rather than spending $2,400 on an opioid antidote carried by emergency responders and withholding a $5,000 contribution to the Travelers Assistance Fund at Minot Area Homeless Coalition in the assumption the fund has enough money to get by in 2018.

The council voted 2-5 to reject the city manager’s proposed cuts and restore the full pay raises. Podrygula and Olson cast the votes in support.

The council approved the final budget 6-1, with Podrygula dissenting.

“The budget is really a statement of our priorities, and I don’t agree with those priorities,” he said. “We are facing significant cutbacks in the quality and quantity of city services. I just can’t justify that.

“I can’t see spending half a million dollars on a cat house,” he added, referring to a community facilities grant to the zoo, “when we can’t spend half a million dollars on our employees.”

Larry Bellew, a Minot state representative, spoke to oppose the overall budget. Although the city’s later research could not substantiate his claim, Bellew said his overall property tax bill will increase by 52 percent, not including what he calculates to be a $3 sewer bill increase. The sewer flat rate will go up 48 cents and fee for 100 cubic feet would go up 21 cents for residential customers and 23 cents for commercial customers.

“Can the citizens of Minot continue to afford to pay these increases or are we chasing them away?” Bellew said. “I do not think I am the only one who thinks our property taxes are out of control. Perhaps it’s time for our local governments, not just the city council but the other taxing entities, to adjust their budgets instead of making the property owners adjust theirs.”

The 2018 budget includes an operating budget of $101.6 million. Overall spending – with the addition of expenses such as debt, capital improvements, pass-through funds – totals $141 million.