Altavista Town Council passes wage hikes in new budget

Water, sewer rates continue scheduled increases

The Altavista Town Council passed its fiscal 2023 budget at its June 14 meeting. The budget includes a pay raise of 10% for all town employees and a targeted 2% increase to retain key employees. The Council also approved a 10% increase in water rates and a 5% increase in sewer rates for the next year.

Town Finance Director Tobie Shelton opened her presentation by outlining the budget, which totals just over $18 million. She noted in response to a question from Councilman Jay Higginbotham that the budget had gone $50,000 over the $300,000 given for wage increases.

When Mayor Mike Mattox asked why the increase was not just a bonus, as had been done in years past, Shelton turned the podium over to Town Manager Gary Shanaberger.

“We looked at several scenarios, and the best scenario was the 10% (increase) across the board, which alleviated a lot of the issues, and then by Council agreeing a couple months ago to use the 2% targeted (increase), we got a lot of people close to (the) average (wage),” Shanaberger said. “Do we have some that are above average? We do. I do believe over the course of two to three years, as market forces change, I think a lot of this is going to balance out.”

Mattox replied by pointing out that much of the staff members the town was losing were relatively new to working for the town, and suggested cutting the raise in half to focus on those losses.

“Would it be wiser to just take five percent and use it across the board, and then use the other five percent to enhance new hires and retention?” Mattox asked. “We may give someone a raise, but they could have something great down the street [at another municipality]. They’re key employees and we’re fighting over them; we’re locked in at 10%, that’s the best we can do.”

However, Shanaberger pointed out that the 10% was intended to keep the town competitive in the first place.

“I think we know from the study that many of our positions were behind, so we’re trying to catch up, and in the meantime our competitors are moving their pay scales up as well, so that’s how we’re trying to balance this out,” Shanaberger explained.

Vice-Mayor Reggie Bennett also chimed in, saying that the town “hadn’t been diligent in doing an annual wage and benefits survey,” which in his private sector experience was key to keeping compensation fair and competitive. He also noted that if the town continued to lose employees, key services would start to get impacted.

“I will guarantee you one thing — if you don’t provide those services, that phone will be ringing off the hook right up front (with people) wondering ‘Why ain’t my trash picked up, why ain’t someone made a call on my 9-1-1 emergency this-that-and-the-other,’” Bennett said. “This is the best way to keep our town on track.”

Higginbotham then made a motion similar to Mattox’s earlier idea; where Mattox recommended saving half of the 10% increase for targeted wage increases, Higgenbotham’s motion would raise wages by 5% and keep the other 5% for another six months to see if the economy dips into a recession. No other councilmember seconded the motion and it failed, though Mattox said he “likes the way (Higginbotham was) thinking.”

The Council then moved on to voting on the budget as written, with the 10% across-the-board increase and 2% targeted increase. All the councilmen voted for the proposal, save for Higginbotham, who cited financial concerns for his “no” vote.

“We exceeded the $300,000 that we gave staff to work with, and the fact that we have a fiduciary duty — it’s not our money, it’s the taxpayer’s money, so all we’re going to do is increase taxpayers’ bills,” Higginbotham stated. “But we did have people who were above the average wage, and when you apply 10% across the board, somebody who was at 95% of the average rate is now 105%, so we’ve gone overboard with some people.”

With the budget passed, the Council moved to other items on Shelton’s agenda. After unanimously adopting the FY2023-27 Capital Improvement Plan and the FY 2023 Master List of Fees, Higgenbotham held out again as the only vote against adopting new water and sewer rates.

Under the proposal that Council passed, water rates in Altavista will increase by 10% — a 30 cent increase from $3.02 to $3.32 for businesses and residents of Altavista; a 45 cent increase from $4.53 to $4.98 for residents of Hurt, and a 61 cent increase from $6.04 to $6.65 for all out-of-town businesses and residents.

Sewer rates (which are based on 85% of water consumption or metered consumption) will increase by 5% — 18 cents from $3.63 to $3.81 for businesses and residents of Altavista and Hurt, and 36 cents from $7.25 to $7.61 for out-of-town businesses and residents.

All rates are per 1,000 gallons.

The increases are part of a five-year schedule of rate hikes that first took place in December 2018. Last year, the Council also increased water rates by 10% and sewer rates by 5%. In 2020 and 2019, the Council increased water and sewer rates by 8% and 4%, respectively.