PINELLAS PARK — City Council members are poised to give more money to themselves and city employees during a time of record unemployment and plunging property values.
But Pinellas Park officials deny the 3 percent increases are raises because the money will go into the employees' pension plans rather than into their paychecks.
The goal, said city spokesman Tim Caddell, is to bring the salaries and benefits received by the council and the general, or nonunion, workers into line with changes that were made in police and firefighter pay plans last year.
The proposals are scheduled to come before the council at Thursday's meeting. The 7:30 p.m. meeting in the council chambers at City Hall, 5141 78th Ave. N, is open to the public.
The increases became an issue during the city's negotiations with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. Union representatives wanted the same concessions granted last year to firefighters and police: 3 percent guaranteed raises for three years with the increase going into the pension plans rather than into paychecks.
City officials agreed and decided, as they have historically, to extend the same concessions to nonunion employees. Council members are included in raises after members passed an ordinance in 2003 granting themselves automatic raises each October based on the Consumer Price Index.
The phrasing of the new council proposal, however, makes it appear that council members will continue to receive their raises in October as well as the 3 percent this month.
Council member Ed Taylor defended both proposals, saying they were not raises. But he agreed that they could be seen as "delayed raises" that would increase the amount an employee will receive after retiring.
"Will it cost the city more?" Taylor said of the proposals. "It has to."
But Taylor did not see that as a problem even during a time of severe economic hardship for many taxpayers. Pinellas Park, he said, has been frugal with tax dollars and runs a tight ship.
The main problems, Taylor said, come with county, state and federal taxes. Besides, he said, the city has not raised its tax rate.
"I can commiserate with your pain, perhaps, but if your neighbor feels the same pain, does that make it go away?" he asked.
Taylor added, "If you live in our city and we don't raise taxes to you, that's pretty darn responsible."
Maintaining the tax rate and a limited workforce that can continue to provide services is "as good as we can do," Taylor said. "I think we've been very prudent with our taxes around here."
Besides, Taylor said, the city cannot eliminate pensions. The police and fire pensions in particular are mandated by state law. And the pensions help attract good workers who might be able to get better salaries on the open market. And pension plans have to be funded adequately. If not, the taxpayers would have to come up with a lot more money to fill bigger holes later.
Taylor agreed the council is caught between competing interests — taxpayers who are upset that they have to support public employees during hard financial times and employees who are also facing hard times.
Many employees are "upset they're not getting any raise" and are urging a tax increase, he said. "It's an interesting battle."
Reach Anne Lindberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450.