Not right time for city raises

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By The Staff

We can picture the scene when veteran Lancaster City Councilman John Howard shook his head and said, “I think I’m in the twilight zone.” Howard often quips at council meetings, and he’s never been a council member to mince words.

And when he wondered if he was in some netherworld at the June 3 special City Council budget meeting, he did so for good reason. The majority on council had just voted to tap into the city’s reserve funds to give employees a 2 percent raise.

Howard and Mayor Joe Shaw were the only two on council to vote against the measure. On Tuesday night, Council approved the 2010-11 budget, including the 2 percent across-the-board raise for employees. The vote for 6-0. Howard was not at the meeting.

While we appreciate the desire of the majority on council to want to give raises to city employees, because the employees are, as Councilwoman Sarah Eddins said, the city’s “greatest assets,” the timing for such a move just isn’t right.

Unemployment remains high in the county, and although the national economy does appear to be recovering from the Great Recession, it’s a slow recovery.

The school district is facing deep budget cuts, with some programs getting axed or trimmed and some employees not being offered contracts for the new school year and many others facing furloughs.

Meanwhile, many private businesses in Lancaster County are having a tough time of it. They’re watching the bottom line closely, delaying capital improvements and just sitting tight, waiting and hoping the economy will recover sooner, rather than later.

There is no talk of raises at most businesses. That is out of the question, and that’s understandable.

So, why did City Council feel compelled to give raises in times like these? Does the majority on City Council not see what’s going on everywhere else? Do they not understand that employees realize these are tough economic times globally, and just not the time for raises to be on the table?

Like Howard, we’re bewildered. And we’re worried.

Tapping the city’s reserve fund to give raises is a really, really bad idea. This fund, which now has $5.6 million in it, doesn’t exist for this purpose. It’s tucked away so the city is never in the red financially, and for use in case of emergencies, big or small. It especially needs to to be there in cases of big emergencies, say if another Hurricane Hugo hit and caused extensive damages to the city. In those situations, the city would want a healthy reserve fund to tap.

We think raiding the reserve fund to pay for employee raises is a shortsighted decision.

We wonder what the plan is for a year from now when it’s time to work on yet another budget.

Where will the money come from then to maintain these 2 percent raises? Will council have to tap the reserves again?

Given today’s economy, most employees (those lucky enough to have  jobs) understand why they’re not getting raises. City employees should also.

City residents have entrusted City Council members to manage the city’s finances in a responsible way.

This was not a responsible decision.