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Sunnyside City Council spars over wage hikes...20 employees to receive $37,000 in back wages

"Quite frankly I'm getting a little tired of hearing about the citizens. A lot of times citizens choose crappy lifestyles which lead to crappy lives and that's the choice they make.

"These people are highly trained professionals that need to be taken care of," Councilman Bill Gant vented during a heated Sunnyside City Council discussion last night.

Gant's remarks countered a comment by Councilwoman Carol Stone opposing a 3 percent cost of living adjustment for non-union employees and managers for 2008, plus 5 percent pay raises for those in line for step pay hikes. The raises would be retroactive, meaning the employees would receive a lump sum representing the 2008 pay increase.

In her comments Monday night, Stone noted that she represented the citizens and "in good conscience" could not approve the pay raises. She and Councilwoman Theresa Hancock reminded their colleagues that council decided late last year to freeze non-union wages because of budget difficulties.

"I want to say that last year the reason we did this (wage freezes) was we had a bad budget year. We were going in the hole. We have cut positions this year, nine positions. I don't see that as an improved position to now turn around and retroactively give raises," said Hancock.

The $37,000 in pay raises council ultimately approved last night retroactively for 20 employees in 2008 would have paid all but $9,000 of the annual salary for one of the police officer positions cut this year to balance the budget. Or, it would have covered all but about $1,000 of the annual salary for one of the park jobs cut out of the budget.

City Manager Eric Swansen brought the proposed hikes to council last night and said they are figured into balancing the 2008 budget in the face of a $1.1 million shortfall. "We assumed we could play catch-up with the employees," he said of the retroactive pay raises.

Hancock and Mayor pro tem Bruce Epps both noted that council had asked for a wage study last year during the budget season and did not receive one.

Council is still waiting for a wage study, and Epps said it's needed before council makes decisions on pay raises. "I like to see what we're doing before we go forward." While he feels the cost of living amount is not "too off base," he said he is "vehemently opposed to step increases" because they do not reward employee loyalty beyond five years.

Arguments for both the cost of living and step pay raises included Gant's comment that city management employees may look for work elsewhere. He said if raises aren't in the offing, then employees will leave. "I guarantee you that," he added.

Councilman Tom Gehlen also weighed in, asking, "How long are we going to hold out on our employees? They've deserved it from the beginning of the year."

Mayor Pablo Garcia brokered an end to the stalemate, offering an amended ordinance that would grant the cost of living raises, but not the step pay hikes.

Gehlen, Councilman Jim Restucci, Epps and Garcia all voted for the amended budget item, authorizing the city to surrender $37,432 in funds from this year's tight budget to give the 20 employees back pay representing the raise for all of 2008. The step pay raises council rejected for 2008 would have represented another $14,761.

Gant voted against the measure because he had sought all or nothing for 20 non-union employees.

Before approving the measure, Restucci said he wanted to see a wage study in time for the Monday, Nov. 10, council budget retreat.

Swansen said that would be impossible, stating it would take four to six months to come up with that kind of information. That was challenged by Epps, who said he used reference information from the Association of Washington Cities to help him and council set Swansen's pay when he was hired three months ago.

City staff has a Monday, Nov. 3, deadline for releasing the proposed 2009 budget. City Finance Director Jordan Arreola said an electronic version of the budget will be available late this coming Friday afternoon at the city's website, www.ci.sunnyside.wa.us/

The Nov. 10 budget retreat will be held from 3 to 6 p.m. at the community center at South Hill Park. The center was recently closed to citizens as part of the 2008 budget cuts.

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