Leader Blues

Friday, December 12, 2008

TOP STORY > >Budget talks get heated in Cabot

Leader staff writer

City council and committee meetings have been normally peaceful in Cabot for the past two years with aldermen sometimes disagreeing, but doing so politely, at least while they sat together around the council table.

But a humdrum committee meeting — held Tuesday night so the council members could have one last look at the budget before they vote on it Monday — turned into a short face-off between two aldermen, complete with raised voices and finger-wagging.

The question of whether Cabot’s elected officials should get pay raises like regular employees has been argued for almost two months, ever since the city council got its first look atMayor Eddie Joe Williams’ proposed $8.4 million budget for 2009.

Essentially, Alderman Becky Lemaster, who serves on the council’s budget committee but who lost her bid for re-election, says they shouldn’t, while all the other council members who have commented on the issue say they should get at least a 2.3 percent cost-of-living raise.

“They knew what the job paid when they ran for it,” Lemaster has said every time the subject has been broached.

And when she says “they,” she means all eight city council members as well as the mayor, city attorney and city clerk.

“Elected officials are elected officials,” Lemaster said Tuesday night, restating her argument. “We don’t draw our living from this.

“If the salaries need to be adjusted, do it in the next (election) cycle. But my God, don’t give raises in a downturned economy,” she said, then added the words that raised Alderman Ed Long’s hackles. “No one knows what the future holds with a Democrat as president.”

“Don’t start, Becky,” Long said, shaking his finger at Lemaster.

Lemaster, who has said in the past that she feels that the mayor and some council members make light of her concerns, reacted immediately to Long’s rebuke.

Shaking her finger at him, she said, “Ed Long, don’t do that. You will not disrespect me that way.

“You don’t know what the new president and a new administration will do,” she added.

As the tension died, Alderman Eddie Cook interjected that Lemaster need not be concerned about the money because the proposed raises would cost very little.

“You’re only arguing $8,000 at the most,” Cook said. “The people like Jimmy (city attorney Jim Taylor), the mayor and Marva (Verkler, the city clerk) who come to work every day should at least get a cost-of-living raise.”

“I know it’s not much money, but it’s money and right now we need to start thinking about insulating not spending,” Lemaster said.

The money that is figured into the 2009 raises for elected officials could fill pot holes in city streets, she said.

Lemaster, who is completing her second year on the city council, will be off in 2009. She lost her second race in a runoff to Ann Gilliam, so voting for or against the 2009 budget Monday evening will be one of her last official acts as a Cabot alderman.

Although the budget committee eventually agreed in principle to cut pay raises for elected officials, the 2009 budget proposal includes 4.8 percent raises for city council members, the city attorney and city clerk and a 2.3 percent pay raise for the mayor.

Alderman-elect Patrick Hutton, who attended the budget meeting, recommended that the proposed budget should be changed to give raises to the council members because they will be starting new two-year terms, but not to the other elected officials, who will be starting the third year or a four-year term. At the state and federal level, governing bodies can’t vote themselves raises, so they shouldn’t do it at the city level either, Hutton said.

Except for Lemaster, the aldermen who attended the committee meeting disagreed. Cook said the cost of living went up for all elected officials and the consensus the aldermen finally reached was that they would recommend 2.3 percent increases for all of them.

But whether the mayor incorporates those proposed decreases in the budget he presents to the full council for approval Monday night will be up to the mayor.