LARGO – Admitting that the process “always feels very awkward,” Largo Mayor Pat Gerard opened the debate on whether she and her fellow commissioners should receive the 2.5 percent pay increase the commission approved for the rest of city staff Sept. 3.
“Of all the votes that we take in a year’s time … this is the one that makes everybody sitting up here squirm, because you’re voting on your own compensation,” Gerard said. “Unfortunately, it’s the only way it ever gets voted on.”
The mayor currently receives an annual salary of $19,688. Commissioners are paid $13,125 a year. Earlier in the meeting, commissioners unanimously agreed to a 2.5 percent raise or the rest of city staff. But during the budget workshop Aug. 16, they were divided when Commissioner Michael Smith suggested they forgo the same pay increase for themselves.
Smith remained adamant in his position on the issue, promising that he would give his increase back to the city if he lost the vote.
“I really think people run for this office because they have a passion and care for this city, not for the pay,” he said. “From my gut, I cannot support us getting (a raise) this year.”
Smith works for the Pinellas Park Public Library and said that as a city employee, hearing that city leaders were giving up their raises while rewarding employees, even with a small raise, would be a “big morale boost.”
He and Commissioner Jamie Robinson were the sole votes against the increase. Smith and Robinson also are the newest additions to the commission, winning elections for their seats in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
Commissioner Harriet Crozier reminded the “new commissioners” that past commissions had debated whether the city charter should dictate when Largo leaders receive raises, instead of the commissioners themselves. But past leaders always came back to basing any increases on what the rest of city staff received, she said.
“None of us ran to get the salary. We ran for the city and to help the residents. I think everybody understands that, but I also think we work very hard,” Crozier said.
The last raise commissioners received was a 4 percent increase, equal with staff, in 2009.
Commissioner Curtis Holmes said that the increase, which amounted to about $7 a week, almost covered the gas he spends “running errands around town.”
“We don’t get any reimbursement for expenses whatsoever,” he reminded his fellow commissioners.
Smith argued that every event he attended and every board he participated on was a choice he made for which he shouldn’t have to be compensated.
Commissioner Woody Brown said that he thought it was good that Largo commissioners had other day jobs, but had no problem voting for the pay increase.
“Personally, I give up income so I can be a city commissioner,” he said, adding that the role commissioners provided was “very valuable to the taxpayers and the city of Largo.”
The debate came after the commission passed the first reading of the 2013-14 budget and tax rate. Holmes correctly predicted that he would be the sole vote against raising the city property tax rate from 5.0 mills. The proposed rate, at 5.21 mills, is equivalent to $5.21 for every $1,000 in taxable value.
The increase is designed to bring in 5 percent more in property tax revenue as was collected last year. It helps fund the 2.5 percent employee salary increase, an additional police officer and another IT administrator to cover growing service needs.
Largo resident and Friends of Largo Nature Parks President Pat Edmond spoke in favor of the tax rate increase.
“I did the math and it’s extraordinary to me, but that increase … is $4.57 a month more than what I’m paying now,” she said. “I cannot imagine what I can buy for 15 cents a day, let alone have to give it up. So I think I’m going to be fine. This simply is not a catastrophe, and I feel that way about this budget as a whole.”
Holmes argued that while the city’s increase was small compared to other taxing entities in the county, it was part of a cumulative increase that was hurting Largo residents.
“Yes, the services are great, but you still have to draw the line somewhere,” he said.
Commissioner Robert Murray pointed out that the city’s annual survey showed residents continually support the services it provides, especially parks and recreation options.
Gerard asked city residents to speak out if she was wrong.
“But I believe that the people of Largo trust us,” she said. “The services we have are a benefit to the people who can’t afford to go pay for those things.”
The final public meeting on the budget and tax rate will be held Wednesday, Sept. 18, 6 p.m., at Largo City Hall, 201 Highland Ave. Residents are invited to attend and voice their opinions.