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Apalachicola continues budget deliberations tonight

At a second budget workshop last week, Apalachicola city commissioners continued to grapple with the issue of pay raises for city employees.

The commissioners did not reach any final conclusions, but instead decided to work that out at a budget workshop tonight, Wednesday, Sept. 7 at 4 p.m., and then at two budget hearings, slated for Sept. 14 and 21 at 5:01 p.m.

The commissioners signaled they would likely put on hold the complicated three-pronged system proposed by a recent salary analysis put together by Evergreen Solutions LLC.

That analysis compared city salaries with 11 entities it considered as market peers, and concluded that the “overall market position for Apalachicola at the survey midpoint is 16.5 percent behind the market average.”

It proposed three implementation options for commissioners to consider, that included bringing employees up to the minimum of their recommended pay range, factoring in the length of time the employee has been with the city, or offering a cost-of-living adjustment.

The price tag for making these steep increases could be as high as $271,000, according to Commissioner Despina George.

These large pay increases have drawn the attention of many Apalachicola residents, who spoke out at the Aug. 23 budget workshop, many again in opposition.

Also taking a stand was Police Chief Bobby Varnes, who made clear that the asking for pay increases had not come from either him or his officers.

“We didn’t put in raises for higher-ups,” Varnes said. “It’s in there because the study found we’re that far below everywhere else.”

He said that in his 23 years with the city, “I never asked for a raise and don’t intend to.”

Varnes said that for his department “it’s hard to compete when they ask to take a job for more money…. Even if it’s the minimum, do something for the employees to build their confidence up.”

Also in the public comment segment, many local residents spoke out against the pay raises.

Tom Edwards said he had looked more in depth of the actual study and found that fewer than six municipalities and counties in the peer sample had responded to the surveys.

He said there was an “interesting array of size,” for the sample, and that only six had populations of 3,000 or less, with three having fewer than 5,000 residents and four having significantly larger populations, with some between 15,000 such as St. Augustine, 22,000 for Fort Walton Beach and 36,000 for Panama City.

“I don’t think we got what we needed,” said Edwards. “I have questions whether these are within the financial means.”

Robin Vroegop, Faye Gibson, Barbara McInturff and Jeanine Gedman each questioned whether the comparisons were applicable. 

“I appreciate the fact that we’re trying to gain some parity in terms of salaries,” Gedman said. “I ask that you delve into the underlying data regarding the conclusions. You’ll see we’re not comparing apples to apples in a variety of cases.”

Former city commissioner Valentina Webb urged commissioners to grant pay increases.

“When you see a policeman, you see them with armor on,” she said. “They’re willing to take that bullet to the head, to the heart. When you call them they come.

“Those employees deserve a pay raise,” she said. “Whatever you see fit, you’ve got to do something for the employee.”

Mayor Brenda Ash provided a strong defense on behalf of city employees and was critical of the show of opposition by the public.

“Last year no one posted on social media or criticized the budget process. This year what a turn of events,” she said. “This season the city has a highly qualified chief financial officer. Mark (Gerspacher) has nothing to gain from (this). He is being publicly maligned… and now (people) are showing why working for the public is not an ideal profession.

“Looking around the room, most of you are retired professionals. We’re glad that you’re here,” she said. “The salary study may not be perfect but it is a starting point. We have to start somewhere.

“It does compare apples to apples and we do have to start somewhere,” said Ash. “What we haven’t seen is another study to rebut the current one. Some of you deem it flawed and skewed.

“I applaud them (city workers),” the mayor said. “They are hardworking, they are loyal and they’re deserving of some percentage. They are hardworking citizens, people that deserve accolades and I applaud them.”

The commissioners drilled down into a variety of aspects of the budget, but by meeting’s end, Ash was insistent that the commission give direction on the pay raises.

“If you think it’s not the time, feel free to suggest line items of who should not get those pay rate changes,” said Commissioner Adriane Elliott. “Everyone deserves this and I can’t pick and choose who does and does not deserve to get those.

“ I am in favor of going through with the tenure parity,” she said. “It’s not uncommon for our good employees to be poached by others. We have to do something to retain our talent.”

Commissioner Anita Grove said she supported a pay raise but did not name a certain percentage.

“We need to raise our salaries, there’s no doubt. There was never an intent to give anybody huge increases,” she said. “We have to raise our salaries. There are people making embarrassing salaries and they are criticized hard.”

Grove stressed that she would like to see annual employee evaluations coupled with any significant raises.

George said she had spent considerable time analyzing the budget and had concluded that even with several changes implemented last week by Gerspacher, a deficit remained. She stressed that the city continues to work with an outdated accounting system, which has complicated Gerspacher’s job.

“We need to adopt as conservative a budget as we can,” said George. “Then let’s take the first quarter of the year to get the budget up to date.

“Right now, it’s frankly frightening how we’re preparing this budget. We need to adopt a budget now that includes only cost-of-living increases and tackle our implementation of the Evergreen study,” she said.

She said adopting a 3 percent minimum cost-of living increase would cost about $60,000, more than $200,000 less than the study’s recommendations.

She stressed that every dollar spent on pay rate increases would mean a delay or elimination in about $460,000 in proposed capital improvement projects.

“My read is we just need to slow down until we have accurate accounting numbers before making decisions,” George said.

Ash said that based on cost of living about 9 percent ahead of last year, she would back a 10 percent increase for employees, noting that “3 percent is not an economically smart move.”

Elliott said she backed tenure increases but would “probably high ball it at 10 percent.”

Commissioner Donna Duncan said she would back a 10 percent increase, and favored holding off on the Evergreen recommendations until the middle of the upcoming fiscal year,

“I think we would be remiss not to provide some raise,” she said. 

George said she had put forth the 3 percent because that had been Gerspacher’s recommendation, and that a 10 percent hike would mean a $164,000 price tag.

“I do want to re-emphasize that for every dollar we’re increasing the cost of living, we’re decreasing previously budgeted critical infrastructure projects that won’t replace itself. The first step would be more thorough analysis of capital improvement projects.”

Ashe said she was open to compromise. “I think staff members are worthy of some type of substantial increase,” she said. “We’re going to have to tackle this issue.”

The workshop ended with George and Gerspacher promising to work together to tighten up budget projections in advance of the Sept. 14 budget hearing.

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Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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