City Council passed on first reading a $21.8 million budget proposed by the city administration that doesn't include a tax increase next year.
Much of the meeting Thursday, however, was devoted to discussing a concept proposed by Council President Bill Hall to move $71,000 from debt service to increase salaries and benefits for codes department personnel. After the lengthy discussion, Hall agreed to withdraw his motion for discussion next Thursday.
Others on council, including Randall J. Allison and Don Noviello, had favored more questions answered and reviewed before voting at the second reading of the proposed budget.
Hall strongly linked the need to raise salaries and increase benefits saying it would provide more incentive to the otherwise entry-level department, bringing it in line with what other unionized employees earn to start.
He also correlated the move as a fight in the war against heroin.
Nobody seemed to disagree with his premise, but there were some who worried how it would affect Mayor Gabriel J. Campana's upcoming negotiations on the contract with City Hall employees, which ends Dec. 31, 2014. Councilman N. Clifford "Skip" Smith, who feared it might open a Pandora's box and have union workers demanding equal pay.
That mattered to Hall, but what seemed to be more of a concern was the battle to save lives. He said a stronger, higher-paid codes department that continued to work closely with police and fire departments on the rental ordinance next year would go a long way in waging that battle against drug dealers and users.
"We've got kids who are dying of drug overdoses, adults who are dying of drug overdoses and people who have made it a business to sell heroin at $7 a bag," Hall said.
Hall said he favored providing the $71,000 to the department and would allow the union to vote it up or down or let Campana say he doesn't want to deal with it.
A majority of council were on record saying they supported increasing pay for the department.
Councilman Jonathan Williamson said the goal would be to see a new and different department with people doing jobs that have never been done before.
He said it would be a shift in the paradigm of how the city government and taxpayers it represents place the department in terms of public safety.
It would include increasing the training budget by 60 percent and bringing the department in line with other unionized workers, with starting wages for codes enforcement officers to be about $35,000, instead of the mid-$20,000 range.
In fact, Williamson motioned for reducing the debt service line item by $15,750 and adding it to the $14,250 budgeted for the codes' Clean and Seal program, bringing the budget to $30,000 for the program. The program enables the demolition of properties that are in disrepair or have owners who refuse to take action.