Tension over pay raises and hiring new city employees began before the agenda items were even introduced at the Mesquite City Council meeting on Tuesday, March 28, when Mayor Al Litman read a prepared statement during his mayoral comment section.
“Nothing is more important to me than the safety and welfare of our residents and visitors,” Litman began as he referenced the upcoming requests from the Mesquite Fire and Police Departments for emergency hires of new employees. “They are the experts, not us. They come to us asking for more support, staff or equipment, we need to listen.”
Saying he was asking the council to approve the new hires, Litman continued with “I don’t believe it’s my job or any other person sitting up here to micromanage either our police or fire department.”
“That’s a first. We’re getting shamed into a vote,” said Councilman George Rapson, repeating the comment several times during the upcoming discussions.
On tap was a request from City Manager Andy Barton for an 8 percent pay increase split equally over two years, and emergency hire requests from Fire Chief Kash Christopher for two new firefighter paramedics and a new narcotics detective from Police Chief Troy Tanner.
While all councilmen expressed their total support for the three requests, it came down to a matter of timing for Councilman Dave Ballweg. He consistently expressed his disapproval for the issues saying the council was only six weeks away from annual budget hearings. “We’re going to spend money and then figure out how to pay for it later,” Ballweg said. He added there is no promise of added revenues and he couldn’t approve the requests based on principle.
Rapson argued while the city balanced its budget last year, “at some point we have to go into our savings because we need to. I don’t see the benefit of pushing the ball down the road one more time.”
Councilman Rich Green agreed with Rapson regarding Barton’s pay increase saying “it’s the right thing to do. It’s the right time.”
Rapson, Green, and Councilman Geno Withelder voted in favor of Barton’s raise. Ballweg and Councilman Brian Wursten voted no.
Barton became the city manager in 2012. His salary will increase to $131,652 in the next fiscal year beginning July 1 and four more percent in the following fiscal year.
Christopher cited a huge increase in call volumes for the fire department while the number of operational personnel had fallen from 34 to 22 people between 2011 and this year.
Wursten questioned why, when call volumes had increased 46 percent, emergency medical service (ambulance) billing collections had increased only 20 percent.
A representative from the department’s third-party billing company, Mike Black, explained that Medicare and Medicaid only pay a small portion, about 34 percent, of ambulance fees. Commercial insurance companies pay about 95 percent of the billing amount but represent only 21 percent of the ambulance runs. He said most of the billings in Mesquite are made to Medicare and Medicaid and “they are a set fee and you are required by law to write off the balance.”
“Again, it’s not because His Honor shamed me into anything. I support this. The general consensus is we can’t afford this request, the police request, and the city manager’s raise. I’m not ignoring that. But public safety trumps a lot of stuff. At some point we have to acknowledge that there is a public safety issue here,” Rapson said.
“We can crunch the numbers until we’re blue in the face, but we can’t change reality,” Withelder said. “The reality of it all is that the health, safety, and welfare of every citizen in this town is primo.”
Green agreed and added that “if we try to make long term personnel decisions in the constraints of a one year budget, we’re just kidding ourselves. We added almost a million dollars to the reserve account last year. If we get to the end and we’re a little short, that’s not the end of the world. We are a city that has to deliver services.”
“We have a level of what we want and what we can afford,” Ballweg said. “I resent what the mayor said that certain councilmen are trying to micromanage the fire department. My attempts have always been to just get information so I can make an analysis.”
Ballweg was the lone vote against approving Christopher’s request for two new firefighter paramedics.
Tanner said his request for a new police officer will ultimately increase his Narcotics Investigation Unit to three detectives. Also citing a tremendous increase in drug-related criminal statistics he added that it takes about one year to recruit and train a new officer.
Voicing his support for the request as he had the others, Wursten also defended the council’s responsibility to ask questions. “It’s a fine line. You elected us to ask these tough questions. Councilman Ballweg asked some tough questions and I think some people were upset with that. These are the tough questions that we’re told to ask. When he asks those questions, I hope we appreciate them.”
Saying that Mesquite is growing because its clean, healthy and safe, Rapson said “we have to keep it that way. We can call it irresponsible and wait to go through the budget process but in my mind that isn’t going to change the need irrespective of what the budget says.”
Ballweg pointed out that other managers and city departments deserve raises or more employees but that the three issues should wait for the budget process. “I can’t in all good conscious feel that I’m doing the job for the citizens by not being able to account for where all the payments are coming from.”
Rapson responded saying “I get Dave’s argument. The budget is what the budget is. We’ve put this off long enough. I really don’t care on these topics what the budget says. Will you make a different decision in six weeks? I won’t. You’re either fundamentally for it or against it.”
Again, Ballweg voted no on Tanner’s request while the other four councilmen voted to approve it.