MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

January 11, 2014

Ward IV hopefuls weigh in on city wages

Candidates say issue must be addressed for quality workforce

Efforts to make the city of Muskogee an employer of choice could prove to be a costly venture.

A recent employee and classification study found the city’s non-uniform employees earn less than 75 percent of those who perform substantially the same work in similar markets.

City officials estimate it would cost about $1.05 million to raise the wages and salaries of all city employees to levels that meet the market median. It would cost that much or more each subsequent year to sustain that level.

Three candidates competing for the Ward IV City Council post see employee compensation as an issue that must be addressed to maintain a quality workforce. Dean Swan equated present compensation levels to “cheating,” and Claressa Vealy-Dyer said raising wages would promote growth in Muskogee.

The Rev. Marlon Coleman said he would make employee compensation of his top priorities. Coleman allowed himself some room to maneuver, saying he would be satisfied if employee compensation could be raised from present levels to the 40th percentile — 10 percent less than the market median.

“I don’t think its right for our employees to earn pennies on the dollar for the work they do,” said Coleman, who cited his experience with Hay study data and employee compensation gained when he worked at the Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center. “No one can expect greater accountability from our workers if they are not being properly compensated for the work they are already doing.”

Swan said paying city employees anything less the market median, meaning half the employees of a certain class earn more money and the other half makes less, is “an immoral way of achieving a goal.” He said employers who pay workers less than the market median are “breaking the rules to gain unfair advantage in a competitive situation.”

Vealy-Dyer said raising city workers’ wages and salaries to the market median “is very important for compensation to our employees.”

“We need our Okies to stay in Muskogee for reasons of revenue and expansion,” Vealy-Dyer said. “Compensating not only means that they work here but will buy homes, raise a family and spend money right here in Muskogee.”

 When it came to identifying funding sources that could be tapped to raise the wages and salaries of city workers to the market median, the Ward IV candidates offered a variety of ideas. Some ideas were more specific than others.

Vealy-Dyer said she would have to “research available sources.” Swan advocated the need to reset priorities “to reflect fair treatment in the payment system.”

“You cannot balance the city’s budgets on the back and mistreatment of its citizens,” Swan said, referring to city workers. “Other cities in Oklahoma manage to do it; that says there is a management problem.”

Coleman said first he would examine the “existing budget to determine if there is enough money there to gradually raise pay over an extended period of time.” Coleman also said he would try to determine whether discretionary spending could be leveraged “in a way to provide annual cost-of-living adjustments across the board, commensurate with increased sales tax revenues.”

“We have to start somewhere in order to adequately compensate our employees,” Coleman said. The city “should start with what is already available to us in our budget.”

When asked about cutting government services to fund employee pay raises, one of the three candidates competing for the seat being vacated by Councilor Kenny Payne argued that option would be unnecessary. Swan said the fact that other municipalities offer higher compensation rates leads him “to believe a budgeting training course is needed.”

Coleman and Vealy-Dyer said they would be willing to review existing services to see if there is any overlap, duplication or services that are not needed. Coleman, however, said he would oppose cutting duplicated services if it meant “eliminating employees without cause.”

Coleman said he also would be prepared to consider staffing reductions through attrition — retirements and resignations — as a possible way to raise workers’ wages and salaries to levels that meet the market median. He also would explore options regarding the extension of revenue sources scheduled to be retired as a possible funding source.

Swan said if the will exists to raise workers’ pay, he has no doubt city councilors will find a way to accomplish that goal. He also said growth in the retail sector would spur sales tax revenue, which could be used for pay raises.

Vealy-Dyer said using city workers instead of contractors may be a way to find the money needed to fund wage and salary hikes without generating new revenue or cutting services.

“It might not reduce government services,” Vealy-Dyer said. “But it strengthens it by keeping city workers working with a sense of pride and gratitude.”

Coleman, Swan and Vealy-Dyer will meet Tuesday in this year’s general election. If no candidate garners more than 50 percent of the ballots cast, the top two vote-getters will square off March 4 in a runoff election. Balloting for these candidates will be restricted to voters who live within the boundaries of the northwest Muskogee ward.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.

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