by Bob Geary
When the Raleigh City Council adopted its '09-10 budget Tuesday, Wake County's new Republican chair saw his opening. Today, speaking to the Wake Republican Women's Club, he ran through it. Claude Pope Jr. chided the Council, with its 7-1 Democratic majority, for failing to cut City Manager Russell Allen's proposed spending plan -- to the contrary, Pope noted with distaste, they added almost $2 million to it. The adopted budget leaves the city's property tax rate unchanged. In these parlous times, however, the Council should've cut it, Pope argued.
The budget offers pay raises of up to 4 percent to city employees, based on their merit. (No across-the-board pay hike for inflation.) Pope said police and firefighters "deserve all we can give them," but other city employees should've been asked to go without. The Council wouldn't even trim arts funding by the mere 11 percent that lone Republican Philip Isley proposed, Pope complained. Isley was the lone "no" vote on the budget, a fact cheered by the GOP faithful.
But the real applause line was about Allen's own pay raise, from $210,000 a year to $220,000. "I take it as a matter a principle," Pope said, "that in times like these," Pope said, "no government executive should be giving themselves a big pay raise."
Allen, he went on, should turn the money down.
Pope is a pretty low-key guy, and he conceded after his speech that in the contest of a nearly $700 million budget, Allen's raise is "not very much money (and) not really that big a raise." But as "a symbolic gesture" -- $10,000 more for the highest paid city official when many taxpayers are struggling and losing their jobs -- boosting Allen's pay was a blunder, Pope said, as was the Council's decision to raise water rates because thrifty taxpayers, the drought of '07 still fresh in their minds, aren't buying enough water. "A slap in the face of the citizens who worked so hard to conserve," Pope called it.
Ironically, Isley supported the decision to raise Allen's pay, which was initiated by Mayor Charles Meeker. Only Thomas Crowder, a Democrat, voted against it.
After tuning into the widespread opposition to it, however, Meeker said the Council would reopen the subject of Allen's pay after the budget was adopted. "Appearances matter," the mayor conceded. He added that Allen was ready to forego the extra $$$ if the Council wanted him to.
But on Tuesday, Meeker and a unanimous Council voted to affirm took no action to alter the raise after adopting what can only be termed a generous city budget that lays off nobody and cuts nobody's pay. It was, in a word, odd. (Update/correction: Meeker and the Council, after adopting the budget and after a private meeting on a "personnel matter," let Allen's raise go ahead without any member commenting one way or the other about it. Allen, too, was notably silent -- no offer from him to eschew, defer or otherwise not grab the pay raise.)
The extra $1.85 million was added mainly so city employees would stop complaining that their pay increases will be less than Allen's -- with the new money, at least no employees will be hit with the higher health insurance payments Allen wanted them to pay.
Meeker proposed taking the extra money from debt reserves. Councilor Russ Stephenson said no, let's get it instead by postponing the merit pay hikes for six months. Stephenson's plan almost certainly would've forced the Council to rescind Allen's pay raise as well. But as usual on this Council, Meeker got his way and everybody's pay went up -- opening the door for Claude Pope.
What happened to "appearances matter?"
Anyway, Pope took the occasion to announce that he's looking for Republican candidates to run for City Council -- maybe even for mayor -- obviously figuring that Meeker and his quiescent Council allies have stepped in it. The filing period begins July 6, Pope said.