MADEIRA BEACH — City officials are taking major steps to ensure that City Hall, the Fire Station and Recreation Center are fully operational during power outages for any reason.

City commissioners voted 3-2 at their May 14 meeting to authorize the purchase and installation of a custom-built generator for the Fire Station and City Hall, and to relocate the existing generator from the Fire Station to the Recreation Center.

Fire Chief Derryl O’Neal said the buildings at the city government complex, completed in 2015, were built to be strong enough to withstand the most powerful hurricanes.

“But if they don’t have power, the buildings are pretty much useless during emergency services operations,” O’Neal said.

The city found that out following Hurricane Irma, when the electricity at City Hall was out for about a week, O’Neal added.

City Manager Jonathan Evans said the new generator can “potentially provide back-up power to allow city staff to work seamlessly.”

Also, City Hall could be used as a place to provide food and shelter, if needed, for residents following a storm.

Finance Director Walter Pierce said having the generator to provide back-up power also will be useful not just for emergencies, but also when smaller storms cause power outages that are disruptive. He said City Hall was without electricity for some hours a couple of times recently, wasting time and money.

Moving the existing generator to the Recreation Center “will allow that facility to be able to accommodate the community’s needs in the event of a disaster activation,” a memorandum from Evans on the subject said.

Evans’ memo stressed “the importance of maintaining the continuity of government in the event of a disaster activation and providing safe spaces to accommodate staff pre- and post-event, thus increasing our effectiveness and response times.”

Buying the new generator and moving the existing one to the recreation center is estimated to cost up to $340,000. The money would come from the city’s emergency storm response fund, which Evans said has “a very healthy balance.”

Also, grants have been applied for that would reduce the city’s cost by 50 to 75 percent, Evans said. He said the project would be bid out, and the estimated cost is a “worst case scenario.”

Evans said that the generator would not be in place in time for hurricane season. He said that it’s “a pretty lengthy process” to design, acquire, and install the equipment.

“Once we get the bids, then there’s the design of the generator, the permitting process, the cranes that have to be acquired to move the old generator from the fire station to recreation – there are a lot of different components to it,” Evans said.

The project could have gotten an earlier start if it had been approved in February when it was on the agenda of a special meeting. At that meeting, only three commissioners were present, and they voted 2-1 for approval. The approval failed because three votes are required. Mayor Maggi Black and Commissioner John Douthirt were in favor, with Commissioner Nancy Hodges opposed.

Commissioner Deby Weinstein was not present at that meeting. She recently asked that the topic be brought up again.

“I asked to bring this back because I was not here when this failed. I think it’s very critical to the operations of the city, to the safety of our employees, and to the safety of our citizens to maintain the continuity of government,” Weinstein said.

This time, the vote was 3-2, with the additional vote in support of it from Weinstein. Opposed were Commissioner Hodges and recently elected Commissioner Doug Andrews.

While Hodges and Andrews questioned the cost of the project, it was not apparent that they would vote against it until the roll was called.

In a later comment, Hodges said she voted against authorizing the generator purchase because there were no bids and “I didn’t want to give them an open checkbook.”

“I’m all for safety, and I know they said they were going to get bids,” Hodges said. “But we should have voted after we got bids. I felt we did this backwards.”

Some city employees are underpaid, study finds

A study on employee compensation found that 16 employees are being paid below market wages, by about 12 percent. The study recommended the problem be corrected in two phases. In June, the underpaid employees’ salaries would be “brought up to market.” In October, at the beginning of the 2020 fiscal year, the salary ranges of city workers would be shifted and adjusted.

Phase 1 will cost about $10,000. Phase 2 would be about $40,000.

Evans urged the commission to approve correcting the salary inequities.

Andrews said some city employees are also overpaid. If those workers’ wages were lowered, and the money given to the underpaid employees, the corrections would cost the city nothing, Andrews said.

Andrews said he is voting to approve the proposed changes “because our lower-paid workers deserve raises.”

Weinstein said she is “very pleased” that the study was done.

“We’ve never had a salary and comparative study before. This is the first one we’ve ever done,” she said.

Black said the study is flawed, because it mostly includes cities larger than Madeira Beach. Included in the study are Belleair, Indian Rocks Beach, Pinellas Park, Treasure Island, Seminole and St. Pete Beach.

Residents who spoke on the compensation issue were in favor of making the corrections recommended.

“We’ve had really good people working for the city, but we ran them off because we didn’t pay them worth a damn,” said Robert Preston.

“When workers are paid better, morale is better. This shows we care about our employees,” said Linda Hein.

The commission voted unanimously to move forward with the first phase, bringing the underpaid workers up to market wages starting June 1.