Everyone wants something from Georgetown Mayor Tom Prather that he says he can’t give right now.
“They all want a timetable,” Prather said. “I can’t give them a timetable, because I don’t know what it is.”
The mayor is referring to a time frame when first responder salaries will be increased.
It is an odd position for Prather who commissioned a survey two years ago comparing Georgetown’s revenues and expenses to 18 “peer” cities. He has said he had strong suspicions what the survey would show, but he felt the data was needed to make the case Georgetown’s first responders were underpaid and the city needed to increase revenues — through increased fees and taxes.
Any time discussions of increased fees and taxes are raised, there is push back from council members and residents, so Prather laid out an almost methodical plan to illustrate where Georgetown’s revenues were falling short, and an extensive plan on how to increase revenues. Ultimately, though, Prather wanted to increase wages, especially for the police and fire department.
Georgetown Police Chief Michael Bosse has been pushing for the wage increases for some time, and Prather has alluded to a deadline, although no one but the two men know what the deadline actually is.
“(Bosse) has put everything he has on the line,” Prather said about Bosse going public with his concerns. “His reputation. His word. His character. I admire him for that.”
The survey was released in January, and for 60 days Prather’s plan was working to perfection. The survey revealed what Prather suspected and through a series of meetings with the public, business leaders and council members, the revenue shortcomings and consequences were on display. One by one, council members showed support and in late February, Prather promised to reveal a plan to increase the city’s revenues and bring the salaries of the city’s first responders in line with neighboring cities.
He promised the wage increases would be included in the city’s 2020-21 budget. To that point, the city’s fiscal year budget was on track and even slightly ahead in several categories. Prather told those close to him he felt he had the council’s support and he was ready to push forward.
Then the pandemic hit, and the governor ordered businesses shut down. Projected city revenues began to plummet, and projections of future revenues because of the lingering COVID-19 crisis were sobering.
Then a series of shootings and gun-related violence incidents began occurring around the city. The News-Graphic reported most nights the police department has only four officers on duty, and residents became nervous and angry. Social media posts revealed GPD officer after GPD officer resigning to accept a better-paying position either with another police department or the private sector.
All the while, Prather and city finance director Stacey Clark were monitoring the city’s revenues, studying projections and trends. The 2020-21 budget passed by the council projected a $4.4 million deficit, although city officials said they are hopeful the city will receive some $2.4 million in reimbursements from the CARES Act. That still leaves a $2 million deficit, Prather is quick to remind everyone. And he said he won’t count on the CARES reimbursements until they are in the bank.”
“I’ve got a city to run,” Prather said. “It’s not fair to anyone to promise (salary) increases if we don’t have the sustainable income to cover them. I don’t know what this virus is ultimately going to do to us. None of us do.”
“I do know we are in a budget deficit situation. We can’t forget that.”
Suddenly, where the mayor and police chief were once on the same page, COVID-19 has placed them squarely on opposite sides of the fence.
Bosse is facing a critical situation. His department is short-handed and violence in the city seems to be increasing. The police chief understands what the pandemic has done to the city, but he also knows the city fell behind years ago in keeping up with law enforcement salaries and time has become an enemy. Georgetown Fire Chief Eric Colson also knows that situation all too well. Last year, the fire department was in a similar spot, but a new class of recruits has improved his manpower position, but his department lacks experience.
Prather knows about the violence, the manpower shortage and the resignations and he said he wants desperately to increase the salaries.
“I can’t jeopardize everything for one or two departments, no matter how bad I may want to,” Prather said.
The council has begun discussing a 911 fee attached to residents’ cellphone bills. Prather reluctantly pushed that fee increase forward as a first step in his six-step plan, but he never meant for it to enable the city to increase first responder wages. For that to happen, the city would have to increase other more substantial revenue streams such as the payroll taxes, and the mayor said that would be a harder push and the timing is not right.
“Normally, I would never place a council in such a position,” the mayor said. “Trying to get such a tax increase passed within weeks of an election.”
To increase the salaries to the level needed, the city would have to increase its annual revenue by at least $1 million and that is before benefits, including pensions which are projected to be dollar-for-dollar in the very near future. The city received $1 million from the sale of Cardome last year, and some council members have suggested those funds be used for the raises, but Prather points out that those funds would only cover a year of the wage increases and additional tax revenues would still be needed.
Cardome was originally purchased nearly 35 years ago with a gift from Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky. Prather has said he believes the funds from the Cardome sale should be used in the spirit they were given and with respect to TMMK — for the upkeep of Yuko-En on the Elkhorn and similar projects.
“In order to do this, we have to have a sustainable revenue source,” the mayor said about the projected wage increases. “We can’t use one-and-off revenues.”
What is not known is the ultimate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the city. How many city businesses may not survive? Payroll taxes did not drop as much as expected mostly because TMMK paid its employees even when the plant was shut down, but another shutdown might change everything. Profit taxes will unquestionably be affected for next year’s budget, Clark said recently when going through budget projects.
“Everyone wants a timetable for the wage increases,” Prather said. “Believe me, I wish I had one.”
Mike Scogin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.