By Jeff Harrison
Del City officials agree pay for police and firefighters are too low.
And they believe a sales tax increase might be the answer.
The city council last Monday night unanimously approved a resolution calling for an election Nov. 14 to determine whether or not to increase the sales tax rate by ½ of a penny. The additional revenue would be used for police and firefighter salaries, benefits and competitive wages.
If approved, the proposal would increase the sale and use tax rate from 8.5 percent to 9 percent. The city currently receives 4 percent with 4.5 percent going to the state.
Mayor Brian Linley said the sales tax revenue is necessary to retain police and firefighters. The city has seen a rash of vacancies within the fire department in recent years, which fire and city officials say is due to pay. Since 2011, the city has seen six firefighters retire and 13 other well-trained firefighters leave for higher paying positions in the metro.
“We need to keep ourselves in a better position to adequately pay our police and fire to where we’re not a training ground,” Linley said.
Linley said revenue issues are not unique to Del City, but are felt in cities across the country. He urged citizens to support police and firefighters at the ballot box.
“This is about our police and firemen. They take care of us and we need to take care of them,” he said.
The upcoming sales tax election will be the third in nearly two years. In September 2015, voters approved a ½ cent increase. The revenue is earmarked for business incentives and neighborhood improvements. And last August, voters passed a 15-year extension of an existing 1 ½ percent sales tax. The tax will fund capital projects including a waste water treatment plant.
Del City currently uses a portion of a temporary 1 ½ percent sales tax for public safety staffing. The temporary sales tax also funds capital projects such as the new police station, public works department building, fire station and library. The portion dedicated to public safety funds three police officers and three firefighter positions.
“It (existing dedicated sales tax) was already being used and it was insufficient. So now we’re asking for a ½ penny more to increase staffing to have competitive wages,” City Clerk Carol Nobles said.
Voters approved a 15-year extension of the sales tax last fall. The tax had been set to expire Jan. 1, 2018. As part of the new sales tax extension, city leaders modified the language regarding police and firefighter pay. The original language allowed a portion of the funds to be used to “maintain staffing levels” and for police, fire and the street department. The new sales tax resolution allows funds to be used to maintain salaries for police and firefighters and keep pay competitive with similar municipalities.
City Manager Mark Edwards, who was not at the meeting Monday night, said the current dedicated sales and the proposed sales tax would generate about $2 million annually that would help increase staffing and pay for police and firefighters.
“We’d combine those two sales tax revenues and increase the number of police and firefighters and get our salaries to where they’re competitive in the metro,” Edwards said.
The city council approved the sales tax proposal language and election date in front of a standing room only crowd Monday night at city hall. The group included several firefighters and supporters.
A couple of residents questioned the logistics of the sales tax proposal.
Marie Moore, a resident, asked the council whether the sales tax proposal would supplant current funding for police and fire departments.
“I am in support of this as long as it does increase the funding. But not if it keeps the funding neutral or just barely funds it. I want to make sure we’re using all of the funds for this,” Moore said.
Noble said the new sales tax revenue would increase funding for the police and fire department, but could not say by what percentage.
Mary Greenlee, a resident, said she and other citizens believed the sales tax extension was supposed to address public safety salaries. She asked city officials to be up front about the issue.
“The lack of transparency is what I’m upset about,” she said. “It seems like we’re paying more and more in taxes and receiving less and less services. And our emergency response people are really suffering.”
Linley said the city strives to maintain a high level of service and treat employees fairly. He shared information about how the city’s expenses have increased over the past decade. Since 2006, the city’s payroll has grown from $4.1 million to $5.7 million including a $255,315 annual increase in the fire department. Health insurance costs have also risen from $817,000 to $1.1 million annually.
The firefighters union has butted heads with city officials over wages and staffing during recent contract negotiations. After failing to reach an agreement, the union requested the issue be sent to arbitration.
Linley said he is committed to resolving the issue and believes voters will support the sales tax plan.