Roanoke’s budget season wrapped Monday after two late disputes, including one involving city council members.
The budget, presented by City Manager Bob Cowell, boosts employee compensation and spending on schools, public safety and other services with higher local tax receipts. Coming in at $325 million for the fiscal year that will start July 1, the budget allocates $94.5 million to schools and $75.7 million to public safety.
City employees are getting a 5% raise and no one in city government will earn less than $15 hourly.
Proceedings had advanced smoothly on a schedule through multiple briefings in public and private until a key public hearing in late April. That was when firefighters announced criticisms about their compensation that Cowell bluntly rejected as unfounded about a week later.
Then, just before the final votes of approvals were cast Monday, Councilwoman Stephanie Moon Reynolds briefly walked out in a dispute with Mayor Sherman Lea over a new $2,500 travel stipend in the draft budget.
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Lea said he requested the money to reimburse him for the use of his personal vehicle for travel on city business and as an addition to his annual $25,000 salary. The mayor, who drives a Ford Explorer, said he’s out daily and, while entitled to mileage reimbursement, he hadn’t claimed it.
Moon, a former city clerk with deep experience in municipal affairs, motioned to remove the stipend from the municipal compensation plan for fiscal 2023 before its approval. She said she felt the measure had not been sufficiently discussed by council. She also said it was unfair to citizens who had endured economic fallout from the pandemic and owed more real estate and personal property tax because homes and vehicles have risen in value.
Nobody seconded Moon’s motion. Lea, who would later call her words political posturing, began to voice his criticisms when Moon interjected.
“Mayor, let’s not do this,” she said.
“Let me finish,” Lea said. “I don’t know why you choose to do that while all the cameras . . .”
Moon stood up from her seat.
“Well, that’s fine, you can walk out,” Lea said.
“It should be discussed, Mr. Mayor,” Moon said of the proposed stipend as she headed for a door behind the dais.
“You didn’t get a second for that,” Lea said.
“That’s fine, but it seriously should have been discussed,” Moon said.
“Well, that lets you know what this council feels,” Lea said.
“They just don’t speak up,” Moon said before exiting and closing the door.
She returned to the room after a couple minutes.
The council voted to approve a compensation plan, with Moon Reynolds voting against it, that implements additional phases of a step progression pay matrix for public safety personnel — police, fire, EMS and the sheriff’s department, which operates the Roanoke City Jail. The city will spend $3.7 million more on public safety compensation in the coming year than it will this year.
The councilwoman said she supported the pay matrix and the raises it triggers but voted no to oppose the mayor’s travel stipend.
Another part of the compensation plan recently drew opposition from the Roanoke Firefighters Association, which predicted it would negatively impact at least 30% of Fire-EMS personnel at adoption. Cowell later briefed council, calling a number of statements by the association untrue.
Since that time, Cowell and association representatives have agreed to meet. Roanoke Councilman Bill Bestpitch expressed hope the two sides would come to an understanding.
“I think if everyone is willing to sit down at the table, remain professional and talk about what their concerns are, they’ll find a way to work this out,” Bestpitch said.
A date for the planned meeting was not available.
The budget is online at the following link: https://www.roanokeva.gov/