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Seminole council bickers on city benefits but doesn't cut

SEMINOLE — A sharply divided council declined to cap raises or transfer the costs of some benefits to city employees despite warnings that Seminole is on the road to disaster.

The decision came after a debate that saw council members Bob Matthews and Dan Hester tangle over the best way to satisfy the council's duty to the citizens.

The debate began during Tuesday's workshop after City Manager Frank Edmunds said he had studied the rising costs of personnel. But the upcoming budget is balanced, he said, and there is no reason at this time to change the way the city benefits its workers.

"I have not been cavalier in the process of reviewing this," Edmunds said. "There are clear employee reductions in the fiscal year '09 budget."

Edmunds suggested that the city could stop paying for short-term disability insurance, which was of little benefit as Seminole's sick leave policy is generous. The city could leave the short-term disability policy as an option for employees who wanted to pay for it themselves.

But council member Peter Hofstra disagreed, saying, "I think the city is on a railroad track headed for disaster somewhere down the road."

The budget for the coming fiscal year might be balanced, but the council needs to look at the longer term effects, Hofstra said.

"It's a dire situation that we're facing," Hofstra said.

Hofstra suggested passing on the costs of dependent health and disability insurance to the employees who wanted it and capping raises at 4 percent each year.

Other council members disagreed saying they wanted to continue to attract good employees and retain the ones they have. Besides, with rising costs, it would be unfair to force city employees to take on more costs by passing on expenses to them.

"I don't think we're in a doom and gloom situation where the apocalypse is coming or the Great Depression," council member John Counts said. There is no need yet, he said, for drastic cuts.

Edmunds recommended that the council hold off on Hofstra's suggestion.

Hester said he "wholeheartedly" disagreed with Edmunds and reminded the others that Edmunds, while a good city manager, had a vested interest in recommending no changes because his salary and benefits were also at stake.

The government cannot continue to run inefficiently, he said.

"Seminole is not immune to (inefficiencies)," Hester said. "I was born at night, but not last night. … The people have instructed the government to be more efficient."

Hester, a banker, had done his math. Had raises been capped at 4 percent since 2003, he said, taxpayers would have been saved $1.8-million.

"It's huge," Hester said of the savings. "It's a compounding effect year after year after year."

With the souring economy and rising prices, the taxpayers need relief, he said. Hester added that the vote on Amendment 1 made it clear that taxpayers wanted relief and that it was the duty of elected officials to see that happened.

Instead, elected officials are saying the voters did not realize what they were doing when they voted for Amendment 1, but Hester said he believed that those who supported the initiative knew exactly what they wanted.

"It just defies logic why government, this includes the city of Seminole, is not listening to this," Hester said.

Matthews, however, said he did not think anyone understands what Amendment 1 says. And, he said, no one was screaming at Tallahassee and the Legislature's spending. He added that he had not talked with anyone who was upset about salaries and benefits of city employees. The people, he said, are upset about such things as green spaces.

Matthews said he'd much rather see infrastructure, such as "islands in the street," go away than cost employees their raises or reduce their benefits.

Matthews later delivered a tangled speech about the council's duty to the citizens. When he was finished, Hester said, he believed Matthews' remarks were directed at him, but "I don't have one idea what you just said."

Matthews said he was not responsible for understanding the intricacies of Hester's arguments.

Hester: "Simple math is simple math."

Hester and Hofstra were outgunned. Matthews, Counts, Tom Barnhorn and Mayor Jimmy Johnson agreed the status quo should be retained.

Patricia Hartstein came down in the middle, saying the status quo should remain at least until council members got a look at the budget.

After the workshop, Hester agreed that the rest of the council appeared out of touch with the realities of taxpayers' lives.

Many taxpayers are losing jobs or their houses and are not getting large raises, if they get any.

Those taxpayers, he said, are also facing higher gas prices and inflation. It's wrong, he said, to ask people who are facing tight times to continue financing city employees who do not want to forgo raises or to assume the financial responsibility for some of their benefits.

Seminole council bickers on city benefits but doesn't cut 05/31/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 5, 2008 1:40pm]
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