Mayor Breaks Tie And Employee Bonus Passes

Published 5:04 pm Thursday, November 10, 2011

FARMVILLE – Mayor Sydnor C. Newman, Jr. cast a rare vote Wednesday night, breaking a three-three tie on a motion to give 128 full-time Town employees a $1,000 bonus and 23 part-time employees $100.

Farmville's mayor can go years without voting, with a seven-member Town Council not meant to yield tie votes, but council member Donald L. Hunter was absent and Newman's “Yes” vote gave the bonus to Town employees.

Mayor Newman joined council members Dr. Edward I. Gordon, Vice-Mayor Armstead D. Reid, and Otto S. Overton, who voted for the bonus, with David E. Whitus, Sally Thompson and Tommy Pairet voting against the plan. (Reid, whose wife is employed by the Town, made a specific declaration of that fact and quoted State Code that allowed him to vote on the issue).

Those voting for and against the motion were unanimous in their praise of Town employees. The “no” votes were all based on concerns the Town cannot afford to spend approximately $131,000 on bonuses at the present time.

“Okay, it's a tie vote, three against three,” Mayor Newman said, “and I'm voting in favor, because I know the employees.” Farmville mayors only vote if there is a tie.

Spates' Speech

After first introducing the agenda item, Town Manager Gerald Spates asked the mayor for permission to read a prepared statement.

Spates began by saying “I was quite surprised to see our local newspaper give a proposed Christmas bonus to Town employees top billing on the front page of the newspaper and the arrest of 15 Longwood students and two alumni for (alleged) hazing a small column on the right side of the page.”

(The news story in The Farmville Herald last Friday-coverage of Town Council's monthly, and public, work session-informed both Town employees and residents, alike, of the proposed bonus and the fact it would be decided by a vote this week. Following the meeting, The Herald asked Spates why the position of the story on the front page should be regarded negatively).

“That being said,” Spates continued, before his cell phone rang, prompting some audience laughter, and Dr. Gordon said the call was from Herald editor Ken Woodley, who was sitting some 25 feet away covering the meeting and who wrote last week's story that was singled out by Spates.

“Ken called,” Dr. Gordon said, looking at Woodley and prompting more laughter.

“It is Ken,” Spates said good-naturedly, and the laughter continued.

“We'll add a seventh column (to the front page of the newspaper),” Woodley said, joking about making the front page coverage even bigger than the usual six column width of the newspaper.

“That being said,” Spates continued and returning to serious vein, “I received an email from an individual, which I furnished to each of you. In it was the following, which I quote, 'Giving a bonus to Town employees is asinine.' I looked up the definition of asinine, which means 'utterly ridiculous, or lacking sense, or in relation to or resembling an ass.' I don't know how that fits in with me but with that being said, I ask the following:

“Was it asinine to buy the Field of Dreams at the cost of $770,854.20 for the children of our area, and an additional $12,837.16 per year to maintain that facility?

“Was it asinine to purchase Mottley Lake at a cost of $1.67 million for a back-up water supply for our area in case of another drought?

“Was it asinine to purchase the old tobacco warehouse at a cost of $500,000, plus to convert it into a parking lot for downtown businesses and a farmers market?

“Was it asinine to build a new state of the art library with Prince Edward County at a cost of $4.2 million?” Spates continued.

“Was it asinine for the Town of Farmville to, years ago, build and operate an E-911 center, not only for the Town of Farmville but for the surrounding counties, when Prince Edward County at that time saw no need and where the Town of Farmville continues to this day to operate and maintain without any financial support from any of the counties?

“Was and is it asinine to spend $2 million in local and federal grant funds for the Main Street enhancement projects in the downtown area?

“Was it asinine to spend $1.5 million on Milnwood Road?

“Was it asinine to purchase a golf course and make improvements to improve the airport at a cost of $2 million?

“And was it asinine to purchase approximately 32 acres adjacent to the landfill in order to proceed with closing of the landfill?” the town manager said.

“Is it asinine to have our employees work around the clock when we have snow so that motorists are safe?

“And is it asinine to have Town workers on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, fixing water and sewer (lines), pick up dead animals and debris in the road?

“And is it asinine to provide prompt and courteous service to the public when they visit the Town offices?

“And is it asinine to provide a safe living and working environment in our community through the police department and their programs.

“I could go on and on. Was it asinine-one final comment-was it asinine to do this and many others without raising taxes only two cents per hundred (dollars) since 1978, and having one of the lowest water and sewer rates in the state?

“And is it asinine to reward our employees, regardless of the economy, for a job well done, as other communities have done?

“I would put our employees up against anyone,” Spates said. “This group can say it is a rare instance, I mean extremely rare, that we ever get a complaint about Town employees or their work. I'm very proud of all of them.”

Council Comments

After the speech by Spates Mayor Newman recalled the time Town employees went to help Franklin County with an emergency and Spates recalled similar assistance missions in and out of state.

“These guys do a wonderful job, all of them, and I think they deserve the increase, irregardless of what you think the condition of the budget is, other communities are giving pay raises and I think these men and women deserve it,” Spates said.

“And we also have a low turnover,” said Vice-Mayor Reid. “We have very little turnover.”

“Do we have any other comments before we make a motion whether to approve or disapprove?” Mayor Newman then asked.

Council member Thompson answered, “This really worries me. I do not feel that it is sound business judgment, in a down economy, to spend money that we don't have at this time. I would much rather wait until the end of the fiscal year and see where we stand, and then make a decision…But to make a decision like this right at this time I don't think is good business judgment.”

“We have half of it in the budget,” Spates told her.

“It was not my understanding that the budget committee budgeted for this item,” she said.

“The budget committee,” said Dr. Gordon, “did not discuss in detail this item but it was in the budget.”

Dr. Gordon also said he disagreed with Thompson's philosophy. “All year long we go along telling everybody how great our employees are…but when you run a business you walk through doors sometimes not knowing what's going to be inside until you get through the door and look around and see what's going on. We don't necessarily know what is on the other side of the door but sometimes you have a good idea and we have a very good idea, a very good idea that our future is going to be pretty bright and I feel like because a hotdog stand down the road is failing (in a bad economy) doesn't mean we should penalize a place that is doing well. I feel like that the employees haven't gotten any kind of recognition for what we really think except words and some of these employees don't make a heckuva lot of money and to wait until the end of the year we are looking at their holiday time (being negatively affected).

“I disagree with what you said,” Dr. Gordon told Thompson. “I understand what you said but my philosophy is different. I really feel like our employees deserve this. I think it's time to do it. And I think, without getting into specifics, I think we have a bright future ahead of us. Farmville has led the way for this entire state, if not the entire Eastern Coast, in thriving. We thrive for a reason. I think the attitudes of the councils that have been before us, this council, (and councils in the future). But we have employees that work very diligently for us. We don't charge for so many things. People are amazed at our tax rate when they come here…I could go on and on too, without using the word asinine, but the thing is I feel that my philosophy is different, and I've thought very hard about this.”

Dr. Gordon spoke of the many phone calls he had and said of those who first opposed the employee bonus “not one of them, by the end of the conversation, was against it. And I have people who were for it right from the beginning. I'm sure other people heard different things, but this was my experience. I started hearing most of these comments over the weekend and then at my office today. And it helped me make a decision which I was very unsure of for quite awhile. Not because of the employees but because of basically what you (Thompson) just said. But I feel like I got faith in our Town and I don't feel like this is going to break our Town. We are not a Town that is broke. And we have a Town that whose future is looking extremely healthy, where others may not. So I'm in favor of this.”

Mayor Newman asked if there was any more discussion and then asked if Dr. Gordon was prepared to make a motion, which Dr. Gordon did, to approve the bonuses, with Overton seconding the motion.

And the vote was called by roll call by council's clerk.

After The Vote

After the mayor's tie-breaking vote, Reid said, “we'd like it taken note that we're talking about 150 people that are good workers…”

Speaking on behalf of everyone who cast a vote, Dr. Gordon stressed that employees should not misinterpret the tie vote and the three “no” votes as being critical of their job performance.

“I don't think there's one person on this Town Council that doesn't care about the employees…Every single person on this Town Council believes our employees are terrific,” he said, “and I think every person on Town Council has faith in our employees and I hope our employees don't interpret this as something that is against them when some of our Town Council members vote against this. I think David (Whitus) was very clear in what he said…I think every person here is very respectful of our Town employees. And every single person here, no matter what the vote, cares about our employees.”

After the motion to approve the bonus was made by Dr. Gordon and seconded by Overton, and after Thompson and Pairet had voted “no,” what Whitus said that Dr. Gordon referred to was, “Let me respond before I vote. This has probably been one of the toughest issues since Mr. Woodley's fine reporting a few days ago. I respect everybody up here. I respect everybody's philosophy up here. Mine is probably different than most because I come from a financial background. I am very respectful of our employees. They do a great job…I have to separate this issue, the employees and the financial aspect. As you saw in our treasurer's report tonight we owe $1.3 million on our line of credit. We have our debt. I cannot-madam clerk I vote no-but I cannot take this money and use it for bonuses. It needs to be applied to the line of credit…I agree with Mrs. Thompson. When the line of credit is paid off, when our financial situation is different, I'd be happy to reconsider.

“I think our employees have an excellent benefit package,” Whitus continued. “I think they're well taken care of. I think we've been generous with holidays…I'm very appreciative of our employees but for me it's a financial decision. Therefore I have to vote no.”

The one audience member who spoke on the subject, Robert Glenn, said the employees deserve the raise but that, noting the Town was raising water and sewer rates, the Town shouldn't take in more money on one hand and then immediately spend it on the other hand.

“You get a few dollars, you want to give it away,” Glenn said. “You have people out of work who would love to get a $500 bonus, not a thousand.

“You up the rates over here on water and sewer,” he said, raising one hand, “but you want to give it away over here.” And he raised the other hand.