At the most recent meeting of the Pine Bluff City Council, debate once again flared with regard to proposed pay raises for public employees. At one point, Councilman Wayne Easterly disputed the Commercial's editorial characterization of the council's proposal to redistribute 5/8 cent tax revenues approved by local voters. As the discussion progressed, the council was obliged to concede that the voter approved plan and the council's current designs were not in complete accord. The public sanctioned a very specific outline of expenditures. The council may have the technical power to go against public wishes, but we strongly caution against such dubious expeditions.

At the most recent meeting of the Pine Bluff City Council, debate once again flared with regard to proposed pay raises for public employees. At one point, Councilman Wayne Easterly disputed the Commercial’s editorial characterization of the council’s proposal to redistribute 5/8 cent tax revenues approved by local voters. As the discussion progressed, the council was obliged to concede that the voter approved plan and the council’s current designs were not in complete accord. The public sanctioned a very specific outline of expenditures. The council may have the technical power to go against public wishes, but we strongly caution against such dubious expeditions.

Sadly, turns such as these are hardly new business with the city council. Those residents with sufficiently long memories will recall a similar situation in the 1990s. Special funds were allocated for public safety with intent of buttressing police operations. Then as now, the Fraternal Order of Police supported the idea. Then as now, the city council had a covert change of heart. The police, who had come to expect the additional revenues found the promised excess backed out of their piece of the general fund.

As Mayor Carl Redus was quick to point out, comparable cities across Arkansas have the luxury of fattened coffers (through public ownership of utilities, larger retail and industrial presence, etc.). Accordingly, our public safety operations exist with a bridle unknown to the more affluent likes of Conway, North Little Rock and Jonesboro. Even so, the city has basic obligations of public safety that it now struggles to meet.

The present situation, disquieting as it may be, is but a symptom of a larger systematic problem. In specific, the recurrent squabble over equitable pay for public employees exists in part because there is an insufficient rubric for determining appropriate pay.

An example from police patrol division salaries is sufficient to demonstrate the deficit. According to publicly available records, a patrolman rank officer with more than two decades of service is paid a mere $4,800 more (for longevity alone) than the rookies hired this year. The difference in base salaries between a patrolman and a sergeant is similarly less than $5,000, even though the constellation of responsibilities is considerably greater.

This is not to say that the city does not have a system. It simply has a vague and dysfunctional one. According to the City of Pine Bluff Non-Uniformed Employee Handbook (p. 36), “Pay Classifications. Each position in the City’s work force has been assigned an appropriate pay grade or pay classification by the Human Resources Department.” The Handbook goes on to describe how said rates are determined: “Rates of pay within the classification system established for each position are determined by a number of variables, including but not limited to, complexity of responsibilities, difficulty of tasks, number of employees supervised, educational requirements, certificate requirements, expertise requirements, average pay for similar positions within the appropriate labor markets, other similar jurisdictions, difficulty of recruiting qualified individuals, the financial resources of the City and other economic considerations.”

This is one of those passages that says a lot without saying much. In short, the Handbook scale has far too much room for capricious and uncertain pay. For anyone seeking to understand why good employees have sought to ply their trade in other environs, this could be a large part of the answer.

The present flap is merely the indignity d’jour for our police officers and firefighters. We expect them to be ethically consistent, brave and vigilant in their duties. They are owed no less from us. These proud public servants have agreed to do a very tough job. In turn, our city council should honor that commitment by holding fast to the spirit of the taxpayers’ vote, not just the expediency and whim of the moment. In so doing, they should strive to develop a comprehensive pay scale that addresses the inadequacies inherent in the current system. Otherwise, we can expect the present malaise to continue.