2020 Budget – Results & Final Thoughts

Last night, city council held its final vote on the millage rate and 2020 budget. There were several votes for each of the component parts. Here’s run-down of how the council voted on each, and my specific reasoning for my own votes.

Millage Rate

First was the vote to hold the millage rate at 10 mills. This was effectively a tax increase of less than 1%. I did not feel that we could lower it without having a negative impact on many of the key functions the city performs for its residents, so I voted in favor of this.

The council majority agreed with me and voted to support keeping the millage rate at 10 mills, with only Councilman Naser voting “no.”

Sanitation Fee

The second vote was on a proposal to raise the sanitation fee from $200 to $300. I’ve heard some complaints about this, but there are a few points that really guided me:

  • By far, sanitation is one of the top issues that people complain to me about. During its last RFP, the city went with the lowest cost provider – I feel like we have been getting service that reflects that bottom of the barrel approach. I want to see an improvement in service.
  • While no agency is perfect, I have mostly heard good things from people who receive trash service from Dekalb County. I have been encouraging the city manager to consider them since last year, when it became clear that our contract with the current provider was expiring. I’m happy that she ended up going this route, and think we’re going to end up with an overall better service. Dekalb county pays its sanitation employees a living wage, so the cost of their service is higher than some of the other vendors we might consider. I’m OK with this, because I hope it will lead to better overall service for our residents.
  • The other piece of this sanitation fee increase is that it would wrap the cost of bulk-good pickups into the service. This was Councilwoman Koontz’s idea from last year – she pointed out that code enforcement receives a huge number of calls about items like mattresses or sofas that are left on the side of the road. We wanted to select a sanitation service that could wrap routine pick-up of those items into their service. Dekalb is able to provide that for us. I think this will help clean up a lot of the problems we experience with scheduling pick-ups from our current provider.

The vote to increase the sanitation fee from $200 to $300 passed with 4 votes in favor. The two no votes were Council Members  Fleming and Naser.

Compensation Plan

Like many organizations in the private sector, Doraville is struggling with recruiting and retention. The strong economy has meant that a number of people have decided to move out of the public sector and into private industry, where they can make more money. Even people who have decided to remain in government have had a lot more better paying options than Doraville; especially with all the new cities that sprang up over the last 15 years. As part of its presentation on this topic, the city manager put together a slide showing how far below industry average the city pays.

How Doraville’s pay compares to what other cities in the area offer

Many positions are 10% or more below industry average. Some of our senior administrative positions are close to 30% below average! This is a big problem.  

The previous city manager had set up a pay plan that had lockstep pay increases that required many employees to wait 5 years in between raises. This did not help us keep good employees who could go to a different city and be compensated for what they were worth without having to wait 5 years. Our current city manager came up with a plan that had 35 grades with 30 steps within each grade (so over 1000 steps!). Each year, each employee will get a lockstep increase in pay. The pay also plan has other features – like additional floating holidays and extra pay for people with special skills.

I was not a fan of this new pay plan, and feel like it’s a band aid measure at best. The biggest problem – our inability to be competitive in salary-range – is not being solved. I also think this system is overly complicated and may lead to misunderstandings between staff and future administrations (which happened when the last city manager set up the old pay plan system). Finally, I’m not a big fan of automatic pay increases, and think that high performers should be paid what they’re worth – not what a step-guide says they have to get that year.

I told the rest of the council that if we were really serious about hiring and retention, we needed to have the city manager identify which positions are critical, and resolve to pay those positions a competitive salary. If we had to cut positions or programs that are not as high of a priority, I think we should be willing to make those calls. I feel that we are splitting the baby – not wanting to give anything up, but also not paying people they are worth. The end result could be that we struggle to find enough people and struggle to do anything well.

In the end, the measure passed 4 to 2 with myself and Councilwoman Hillard voting “no.”

Fee Schedule:

The one budget-related vote that was unanimous was the new fee schedule. For the last year, staff has been looking at changes to make to our fee schedule to bring it more in line with what other cities charge. I don’t think this had been looked at since 2012, so it was in need of updating. I think there’s still some room for improvement, and hope we can make a few one-off changes. The new schedule passed unanimously.  

Budget:

I was generally OK with the budget as proposed. It had some things that I liked (funding for a new economic development position, increases in pay for employees, a new trash provider), and some things that I didn’t like (the overall pay plan).

This is the second budget process I’ve participated in. I think some things got better, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. In 2020, I’m hoping that city council gets involved early with goals, and get public input much earlier than a couple of weeks before the final budget vote. I would like to see a council that is willing to make some harder decisions about paying our employees what they are worth (and cutting back in some areas as necessary) – or at least willing to have more substantive conversations about that.

For the most part, this was a budget that I generally supported, and I voted accordingly. The final tally was 4 to 2, with Council Members Fleming and Naser voting against.