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Officials rethinking raises in Hinesville
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State lawmakers and at least one other local official have expressed dissatisfaction with raises recently approved by the Hinesville City Council and it appears more action will be taken.
If passed by the Georgia General Assembly, a bill sponsored by state Reps. Al Williams (D-Midway) and Terry Barnard (R-Glennville) would amend Hinesville’s city charter, limiting the amount of raises for elected officials to no more than a five percent raise at one time. The bill also would return the mayor’s salary to the amount Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas was earning on Jan. 1 of this year.
If it is approved, the new charter would allow the council to raise future mayors’ salaries by five percent a year for their second term in office. The council could set salaries for future members, but only if city revenue had not fallen in the past fiscal year, and those raises would also be limited to five percent.
Williams and Barnard introduced the bill Monday after receiving what they called a flood of calls from local residents dismayed over the council’s April 1 vote to raise the mayor and council members’ salaries by 167 percent. Hinesville Council Member Kenneth Shaw (District 5) was the only council member to oppose the salary increase.
The city’s pay hike would take effect in 2012. Per the present city charter, the sitting council and mayor will not benefit from the salary increase unless they are re-elected.
As it stands now, the mayor’s annual salary will increase from $15,000 to $40,000 and the council members’ salaries from $7,500 to $20,000.
Thomas said Tuesday he had not seen the proposed bill, but said the raise increase was voted on properly, according to the Georgia Municipal Association.
“It was their contention we did everything legally and ethically,” Thomas said.
The mayor also questions Barnard’s sponsorship of the bill because the city is not in his district.
“Why would Rep. Barnard be involved with something that affects the city?” he said. “Rep. Al Williams represents the city.”
Williams said he has always supported Hinesville’s mayor and council, and will continue to do so. But, he said, friends sometimes disagree.
“I was disturbed by the size of the raise in these economic times,” Williams said.
He said approving hefty pay hikes now sends the wrong message to residents who are struggling financially. Williams said he must answer to constituents who have lost their jobs, have had homes foreclosed, teachers who have been furloughed and many others who must make ends meet despite wage freezes.
Barnard called the amount of the increase “borderline obscene.”
“The city has the right to set salaries,” he said. “We’re not arguing that. We’re not changing their ability to set salaries. We’re changing their ability to increase their salaries. We think we have an arguable case to the amount of the raise that they set.”
Barnard said council members and the mayor “knew what the pay was when they ran for the job.”
“Public service is not about the money,” he said. “It should be about the duty and the opportunity to serve.”
Barnard said state legislators earn $17,000 annually. When he began in state office in 1994, the yearly salary was $10,000, he said.
Barnard said Williams has spoken to Hinesville officials, trying to persuade them to readjust the salary increases. He maintains it would have been wiser if city officials had approved an incremental salary increase.
Hinesville Mayor Pro Tem Charles Frasier said he, too, would have preferred an incremental pay increase and said he will bring the issue “back to the table” when city officials meet for a county-wide planning session later this month.
“I think the city council would be willing to discuss it again,” Frasier said. “The amount of the raise obviously needs to be shaved.”
However, he said he doesn’t like the state legislature getting involved in Hinesville’s governing decisions.
“We should be able to govern ourselves,” Frasier said. “Traditionally, local legislation has not been an issue. Now, because of this, they want to get involved in the process. We can handle it ourselves. We’ll listen to the people.”
In addition to amending the amount of raises for city officials, the bill would change the structure of the city charter if approved, Barnard said.
“It would change the authority of the mayor as he is now seated,” he said.
Barnard said the mayor is currently part of the governing authority of the city.
If the bill passes, the mayor would become “the executive head of the City of Hinesville” and would “serve as the chairperson and presiding officer of the council.” The mayor would not be included with the council as “a body corporate,” which is how the charter currently reads.
Thomas said he does not see how the proposed bill would change his duties as he only votes in case of a tie and has veto authority, as is reiterated in the new bill.
The bill could be sent to the Senate for a vote next week, Barnard said.
“We’re down to the wire on this,” he said.
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