Proposal would give biggest raises to lowest-paid Austin city workers

The city manager wants to give city workers across the board pay increases of 3 percent at a cost of $18.9 million.

But at least four members of the Austin City Council are saying, “Not so fast.”

On Thursday the council could consider a proposal championed by Council Member Don Zimmerman to only give the city’s lowest-paid workers a 3 percent raise. Everyone who makes more than $15 an hour would receive tiered increases starting at 2.5 percent and decreasing the more money an employee makes. This would save the city about $6.2 million, including pension costs and tax payments.

Under this plan, a full-time city worker earning more than $104,000 a year would only receive a 0.8 percent raise, a number that is tied to Bureau of Labor Statistics data on the median pay increase for Austinites from May 2013 to May 2014. A full-time worker earning $50,000 annually would receive a 2.5 percent raise. And a full-time worker earning $30,000 annually would receive a 3 percent raise.

The idea is to try and rein in one of the city’s biggest cost drivers: employee salaries and benefits. Of next year’s proposed $3.5 billion city budget, more than one-third — $1.3 billion — is spent on salaries, health care and “other personnel costs.” Also included in the proposed budget is $5.8 million for midyear salary adjustments for workers who, according to a city salary study, are underpaid.

“This would be one way to recognize employees for their service but also make sure we are keeping our expenses in check and keeping our tax rate low,” said Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who is a co-sponsor of this proposal, which she first suggested on a City Council message board in May. Council Members Ora Houston and Sheri Gallo are also co-sponsors.

Troxclair said the proposed city budget includes the first tax rate increase in three years and doubles the number of full-time jobs added over the previous year. “It is going to lead to a cost-of-living increase for all Austinites,” she said.

These pay increases apply to about 10,172 civilian city employees, with the vast majority of employees eligible for raises between 1.5 percent and 2.5 percent. This proposal wouldn’t apply to the city’s uniformed police, fire and EMS workers, whose raises are determined through contracts with their unions. Those contracts call for a 2.5 percent increase for fire, and a 1 percent increase for police and EMS.

Though it’s on the council agenda for this week, several council members said at a Tuesday work session they were uncomfortable voting on worker pay raises outside of their planned budget workshops and deliberations, which extend to the end of September.

But Zimmerman argued that he first posted this idea publicly back in May and that city management has given them months of a “one-sided” discussion and that the 3 percent pay increase “appeared like magic” in a proposed budget without input from the council.

“I really don’t want this to be postponed,” Zimmerman said. “This conversation should have happened in May or June.”

Council Member Leslie Pool said Wednesday she supports across-the-board raises of 3 percent. The tiered approach to wage increases “doesn’t respect” the existing system of step increases as you move up the career ladder, Pool said. Giving higher raises to lowest-paid employees can start to erase “the separation between supervisor and line employee,” she said.

She said she was also concerned about health care costs increasing for city workers. Employees with families on the city’s preferred provider (PPO) or HMO plans will see their premiums increase more than $600 for the year, officials estimate. About 2,500 people on the city’s payroll are on family health care plans.

Pool argued that affordability means ensuring that city workers can afford to live in Austin.

Typically city workers get pay increases of at least 2 percent. Last year they received a 3.5 percent raise, but the year before they got a 1.5 percent bump. The last year there was no raise for city workers was 2010.

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