Debate over wage structure heats up in Trenton Finance Committee meeting

Finance Committee Meeting News Graphic

Trenton’s Finance Committee and Mayor met with city and TMU department heads for more than 90 minutes Thursday evening, discussing topics including a cost of living allowance for employees, an increase in the starting wage for workers in the Water and Sewer Distribution Department, and the potential splitting of duties for the City Administrator and Utility Director positions. These topics will come before the full City Council for additional discussion and/or action.

Trenton is six months into its current fiscal year. Figures provided by City Administrator Ron Urton show revenues have increased by nearly $1.2 million over budgeted figures due to increased sales of asphalt, more interest earned on city funds, additional landfill tipping fees, plus a significant increase in use tax collections. The largest gain over budget was an increase of $842,500 in asphalt plant sales. 43,000 tons of asphalt sold generated $3,367,500 in revenue. With the plant shut down for the season, expenses were $2,206,000, resulting in a profit of $1,161,500 compared to the budgeted gain of $319,000. The general sales tax (½ cent) and the use tax (2.625 cents) are projected to reach $1,338,000 for the entire fiscal year. Tipping fees paid to Trenton by Rapid Removal Transfer Station are predicted to be $40,000 (instead of the budgeted $5,000). Six months of higher interest paid on administrative, road use, and transportation tax funds are expected to increase by $54,500. At present, the city does not anticipate any adjustment in health insurance premiums.

Urton reported the Consumer Price Index for 2022 was 6.5 percent. He noted there are 40 employees for the city and 31 for TMU. Mayor Jackie Soptic said the greatest asset is the people employed by the city and TMU. With increased revenues, a motion was made and passed for the committee to recommend a 6.5 percent COLA at the next City Council meeting. With the COLA increase, plus benefits and Lagers’ retirement, the additional combined cost for the city and TMU is $245,338.

It was reported that Kenny Ricketts’ Underground Distribution Department has struggled to find and keep employees. The starting wage in this department is $15.72 an hour. Additional pay currently is 50 cents per hour for a commercial driver’s license and up to $4 more per hour if the worker passes three steps of licensing. A motion was made and forwarded for Council consideration to offer a $ 20-an-hour starting wage for the Underground Department. It was noted that these workers are on call 24/7 and deal with wet, muddy, and cold conditions. However, this prompted some at the meeting to call the $20 per hour starting wage “unfair” as other beginning, and even current, employees are making less than that. Urton had recommended a new starting wage for an underground employee, with CDL and one step of licensing, at $17.57 per hour. He cautioned that whenever a beginning wage is raised, it compresses the wages of others.

Also to be debated at a future meeting is whether a 50-cent per hour rate is sufficient for employees required to have a commercial driver’s license. Discussion was held on raising the CDL pay, but this topic was eventually tabled for further study.

Mayor Jackie Soptic told the Finance Committee she is very passionate about having the two positions held by Urton changed to one City Administrator only and one Utility Director only. Urton has held both positions since he was hired seven years ago, beginning with an $85,000 salary and now around $90,000.

The mayor has privately mentioned her preference to council members and spoke with Urton and other staff. She believes Trenton is large enough to support two full-time positions to provide better focus on specific duties and responsibilities of each. Urton told the committee he’d prefer to remain Utility Director. Soptic said Urton could lead Trenton Municipal while utilizing his skills and engineering expertise on city projects such as streets and the airport. The City Administrator position would be advertised with a preference for someone local to be hired by the start of the next fiscal year – the first of May. Also under consideration is hiring the next City Clerk, with Cindy Simpson indicating she plans to retire in 22 months; a training period is needed.

A proposal from Urton stated the Utility Director position could be funded from revenues of the Electric Department. Additional funds for the City Administrator position could come from the use tax revenue and profits on asphalt sales. Soptic said she’d like to see “use tax funds” designated for a purpose rather than going into general revenue as it has been since voter approval in 2021. After discussion, Finance Committee Chairman John Dolan requested another meeting to further explore the separation of duties and define the funding streams before the Mayor’s proposal is presented to the City Council.