WILMINGTON — The sole newcomer to the Wilmington City Council from the most recent election is taking issue with raises the officials had planned for themselves before his arrival.
In a budget session Friday, Luke Waddell pushed to table 25% stipend increases for the officials until a time money is less tight. Waddell was the frontrunner in the 2021 race, voted in alongside three incumbents, including the mayor. Waddell filled the seat of Kevin O’Grady, who did not seek another term.
“The timing is precarious,” Waddell said of the stipends, “when we’re trying to implement a tax increase on the citizens, and it’s changing financial landscapes, and record-high inflation, where everything is more expensive to the individual. And I’m not arguing that our current stipend is commensurate with the amount of work any of us do up here.”
The City of Wilmington is proposing a 1.42-cent property tax hike in the next fiscal year budget, effective July 1, to raise staff pay. Owners of a single-family home accessed at $268,500 would see their annual property taxes rise by $38.
The city needs $7.25 million to implement a compensation study, in addition to around $28,000 to boost the council’s salaries. The property tax increase would generate an extra $3 million to put toward those causes.
During last year’s budget cycle, city council approved upping its stipend 25% with the intention to do so again in 2022 and 2023. Staff had conducted an analysis comparing its leaders’ rates to other North Carolina cities and determined it was “far enough behind” that it should plan multiple years of incremental raises to catch up, the city manager explained.
Last year New Hanover County commissioners took heat for raising their own pay while simultaneously passing an effective property tax increase. Commissioners’ pay jumped 75%, from $17,890 to $31,200. The chair’s salary was boosted 49%, from $26,074 to $39,000. The county is now attempting to reverse course and lower property taxes by 2 cents.
City council’s raises increased 25% last July and are expected to go up another 25% this July with the budget passing. The city would reevaluate next summer how much to come up again to remain in line with the statewide standard.
Despite Waddell’s repeated concerns, it’s likely the raises will proceed as planned. The other six council members defended the increases and will have a majority to pass the budget regardless of his disapproval. Mayor Bill Saffo said some community members are mistaken in believing the elected leaders make $50,000 or up to $200,000 a year.
The plan in question would boost the stipends for council members from $14,490 to $18,113 and the mayor from $19,035 to $23,794. It’s a total additional cost of $28,522 to the budget for all seven members.
Those wages are up from $15,228 and $11,592 in early 2021.
“I think that that needs to be clarified,” Saffo said. “Because I had people come up to me the other night and say, ‘Oh my goodness, you guys gonna go up in your salaries? What do you make?’ And when I tell them, they’re kind of shocked.”
Saffo made a common argument that some people can’t afford to serve on city council because of the low pay.
“Well, sure as hell don’t get in this job for the money,” council member Charlie Rivenbark said. “When I first got elected, I didn’t even know we made anything.”
Rivenbark said as leaders, they are expected to attend fundraisers, so a portion of the income is cycled back into the community,
“You don’t go to these things without writing a check for $100, or $200 is the new $100,” Rivenbark said.
At the last meeting, council member Kevin Spears suggested delaying the raises as a “good faith gesture,” but this time he agreed that the money they make is low. Clifford Barnett also favored the recommendation from staff.
“Mr. Luke, you made the statement — Everything is more expensive to people. Well, unfortunately, everything’s more expensive to us too,” Barnett said. “When I go to the gas pump. They don’t give me a discount because I’m a city councilman, nor a pastor, nor a discount cause I’m good lookin’.”
Mayor Pro Tem Margaret Haynes said years ago she proposed that council members receive annual cost-of-living adjustments along with staff. But, when the city switched to a model of raising employee pay based on performance, council members were left out.
“It sounds like a lot of money, but then when you compare it to the county giving themselves an 83% increase, we’re pretty reasonable,” Haynes said.
Waddell reiterated it would still be a “gesture of good leadership” to hold off on an increase until a year a tax hike was off the table. The municipal service district tax — a separate fee that residents of the downtown area pay — is also expected to rise, from 5.47 to 6.47 cents.
City council will continue reviewing the budget June 7 and is expected to adopt it June 21.