Port St. Joe commissioners began discussions concerning the 2017-18 budget during a Tuesday workshop punctuated by debate over a plan to increase commissioner pay by more than 400 percent.

Port St. Joe commissioners began discussions concerning the 2017-18 budget during a Tuesday workshop punctuated by debate over a plan to increase commissioner pay by more than 400 percent.

Commissioners were deliberating over a preliminary budget which would hold the millage rate the same, increase utility rates by 6.5 percent and included a salary increase which would effectively add $12,000 a year to each commissioner’s salary.

While there was little debate over whether commissioners deserved an increase from a pay scale set 20 years ago, the amount of the proposed increase drew criticism from on and off the dais.

“An increase of 400 percent in commissioner compensation is outlandish,” said resident Greg Johnson. “The city can’t afford that.”

Noting that commissioners currently make roughly $3,700 a year, Johnson said had commissioners increased their pay each year over the past 20 years by the same rate employee salaries were increasing this year, 3 percent, the increase would amount to just 60 percent.

Not out of bounds and an increase he could support, Johnson said, but a 400 percent increase was “ludicrous.”

Resident Guerry Magidson said he too could support a more modest increase, but the increase, “actually 420 percent,” was one he could not support.

Commissioner Brett Lowry said he had included the proposed increase in the preliminary budget, saying constituents had contacted him and said commissioners deserved a pay raise.

Mayor Bo Patterson agreed, saying voters who supported him supported an increase in pay.

But Commissioner Rex Buzzett, noting the preliminary budget was still some $69,000 in the red within the general budget, said he could not agree the proposed “merit increases.”

“Given that we are still $69,000 in the red, I can’t support it,” Buzzett said. “I think we stay where we are and balance this budget.

“That would be the easy way to do it, eliminate the raises.”

The total cost of the merit raises for each of the five commissioners would be $70,000, said financial officer Mike Lacour.

“I don’t think you can put a dollar amount on public service,” Buzzett added.

As justification, Commissioner William Thursbay said school board members and county commissioners earn a salary of well over $20,000 and those boards meet just once a month, compared to two or more meetings per months for the City Commission.

School board and county commissioner salaries are established by Florida statute and are based on county population.

The discussion veered into the personal as Patterson said some on the board were not born with “silver spoons” in their mouth, grew up poor, the money was important and, “We are doing a good job.”

Buzzett said past income levels were irrelevant.

“We’re not up here to make a living,” he said.

Patterson and Commissioner David Ashbrook said they would not agree to the salary increases if they meant raising taxes, but Patterson said there were other ways to balance the budget, not raise taxes and include the salary bumps.

Johnson said the proposed salary increases were another sign of problematic city operations.

As another example, Johnson said the city should not be paying employees for time off to function as a school board member or county commissioner, since those employees were paid, and “paid well,” to serve in those positions.

The city has employees currently serving on both boards.

Johnson noted that one of those employees had 20 days time off, paid, during the past year to serve on one of those boards.

If the city could afford for one employee to take the equivalent of a month off, with pay, maybe commissioners should closely examine staffing needs, Johnson suggested.

To continue to pay them the time off to attend to jobs that pay them well, Johnson said, was “not acting in your fiduciary responsibility duty to protect taxpayers.”

Additionally, Johnson noted three commissioners were attending the Florida League of Cities annual convention next week, when the city manager and one commissioner should more than suffice.

“I am concerned about the path I see happening here,” Johnson said.

At the end of the workshop, Patterson said he would be open to negotiating a lower amount for the salary increases for commissioners.

In other highlights from the first budget workshop:

*Utility rates will increase 6.5 percent in the coming year, 2.75 percent on the water side and 3.75 percent on the wastewater, or sewer, side.

The increases are based on a 2015 rate study which established a rate structure aimed at servicing the debt the city shouldered with various utility infrastructure projects, including a new water plant and water distribution pipe replacement.

*Patterson said he would like commissioners to consider changes in building inspections and code enforcement.

Patterson said county officials have indicated the county could take over building inspections while providing a larger share of the revenue generated with the city.

In addition to a better rate for the inspections, the city could also provide better and more immediate service for those seeking permits and certificates of occupancy.

His fellow commissioners said the city should put out a request for qualifications that could result in a package even more friendly to the city.

As for code enforcement, Patterson said the city employs an officer 20 hours a week at $20.50 per hour, a rate of pay that is too high, Patterson said.

He suggested the city could hire out the work at a lower price while increasing the number of hours devoted to code enforcement.