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Mills River budget raises town salaries

MILLS RIVER — In a rare split vote, the Mills River Town Council on Thursday adopted a $1.5 million budget that funds pay raises targeted at the town administrative functions. The council rejected one councilman's proposal to raise salaries across the board by 5 percent, instead adopting the town manager's recommendation for a broad restructuring of duties, titles and pay.

Council members Lois Pryor, Larry Freeman and Shanon Gonce voted in favor of the budget recommended by Town Manager Jaime Laughter, which adds two fulltime and one parttime position and raises the salaries of town personnel by 11 to 25 percent. The budget also adds a salary for the first time for Town Council members of $3,000 a year. The budget does not raise taxes or take money from the town's fund balance.
Laughter had submitted a study a year ago when the Town Council drafted the 2012-13 budget calling for higher salaries that she said reflected the duties that town staff was carrying out and the average for a town the size of Mills River.
The new budget adds a fulltime zoning enforcement officer and park maintenance worker and a part-time receptionist.
The personnel changes included:

  • Laughter's salary goes from $66,715 to $75,000, an 11 percent increase. A study by the League Municipalities said the average rate for a town manager the size of Mills River was $86,500.
  • Town clerk Sue Powell would add finance officer to her duties. Her salary would rise from $45,543 to $48,000. (The League study said the average for a town clerk is $48,361 and the average for a finance director is $67,347.)
  • An administrative assistant would be promoted to tax collector, and her salary would go from $31,463 to $42,000, a 25 percent increase. (The League study said the average for a tax collector is $42,473).
  • Zoning officer and parks coordinator Pat Christie would become parks and recreation director. Her salary would rise from $39,883 to $48,000, a 17 percent increase. (The League study said the average for a recreation director is $54,874.)
  • A new zoning enforcement officer would be added, at a salary of $34,000 a year.

Mayor Roger Snyder and council member Wayne Carland both voted no, saying they had concerns over the salary increase levels.

"My compromise to this proposal is to give all four current employees a 5 percent raise," Carland said. "That gets everyone equal and isn't discriminating between anyone."
Laughter explained that the salary raises were not universal since some employees would be gaining more responsibility as their titles changed. The salary increases are based off of a 2012 survey that compared average salaries for each title in a similar sized town.
"These positions require a broad in-depth knowledge plus the ability to deliver customer service," Laughter said. "We're better protecting the tax dollar by retaining personnel than risking that training walk out the door."

The salary increases passed, but one council member said there should be no need for any future increase.

"After this, I see no reason why in these positions it ought to be performance increases and COLA increases from this budget forward," said council member Shanon Gonce.

Sarah Hendricks, citizen, volunteer finance officer and member of the finance committee, spoke during public hearing about the salary increase.

"I really think that Jaime and the staff have brought you a good budget," Hendricks said. "The expense of replacing someone would be far greater than taking the time this year to establish the median pay."

Hendricks job as volunteer finance officer will be eliminated.

"Basically what we're doing is taking two existing positions that have dual roles and we're splitting them," Laughter said. "One of the things I'm trying to do is to leverage the talent we have in-house so we don't lose it."
The town had been using a volunteer finance officer, "which we've done well with so far, but when public money is involved it helps to have somebody that is an employee," she said.
"Out of my three staff here day to day, all are attaining signficantly more responsibility," she said. "The (pay) recommendations I made don't even go beyond the middle (range) for our population group."
Christie has a background in parks and recreation in Florida, Laughter said, and Powell has worked as a paralegal and in banking. Ongoing construction at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., the Lodge at Mills River nursing home, the planned Legacy at Mills River retirement community and possible expanded industrial use in the Jeffress Road area now served by a sewer line will all add to zoning compliance duties, she said.
"The Legacy at Mills River is still on the table. That's going to take a lot of review," she said. "For Sierra Nevada we still have review permitting and follow up at the end. Every time there's a bush on a landscape plan we have to go make sure it was planted.
"It's been five years since we added fulltime staff but we have substantially grown services in Mills River," she said.
The council adopted the manager's proposed budget plan with the exception of two cuts that saved $3,000. The board trimmed an appropriation to the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development from $11,000 to $10,000 and cut its allocation to Agribusiness Henderson County, the nonprofit agency that works to increase farm-related economic development, from $5,000 to $3,000.
"A good long-term goal would be to equalize them," said Larry Freeman, council member. "But I don't think we can do that this year."