The city of Little Rock’s lagging tax revenue, which recently forced a $3 million budget adjustment for this year, apparently isn’t expected to be robust next year.
Sources tell me that city departments have been told that city employees — except those not covered by union contracts such as police and fire— may have to give up a planned 1.5 percent raise in 2017. They also may be asked to take one day of furlough — meaning a loss of a day’s pay.
City Manager Bruce Moore wasn’t immediately available to take my calls on the reports that he’d sent this word to departments today. The City Board ultimately will have the final say on next year’s budget.
UPDATE: Moore responded to my requests for information Friday morning. He said no final decision had been made on employee pay. He also said he planned to meet with judges next week on the conflict about payment of accrued sick and vacation time described below.
The city has had to trim its budget this year because sales tax revenues have fallen short of forecasts. The gap was covered by not filling open positions and transfer of reserve money. But city directors raised questions about future years.
The cut of pay raises for lower-paid employees comes as the city’s three district court judges — Alice Lightle in criminal, Vic Fleming in traffic and Mark Leverett in the environmental court — are questioning a city decision Tuesday not to pay them for accrued vacation and sick pay as the district courts make a full transition to the state court system on Jan. 1.
The judges’ salaries are set by the state within a range and paid by the city, with the total more than covered by court revenue. Though they function mostly as municipal courts, they will have countywide jurisdiction beginning in 2017. A round of pay raises for all state judges last year increased the range of their annual pay, with the city able to fix the amount in that range, to $146,300. No other state court judges accrue vacation and sick leave. They take time off at their discretion and turn in no time sheets. But the Little Rock judges contend — and cite state statute in support — that says until 2017 they are treated as city employees and thus should get the same vacation and sick leave treatment. They say they do keep records of time off. Past municipal judges have received payouts for accrued time on retirement. But Carpenter says judges are not entitled to receive more money than set by statute. No accumulated pay may be provided, he contends.
The Little Rock City Board had planned to make a cumulative lump sum payment of $237,00 to the three judges, but the payment was removed from a list of board budget adjustments approved by the City Board Tuesday. AND NOTE AT END AN ADJUSTMENT FRIDAY TO THAT FIGURE.
According to documents I obtained, City Manager Moore made the decision Tuesday afternoon not to go forward with the payment after City Attorney Tom Carpenter wrote a memo questioning the legality of the payments. I tried to get in touch with the judges about this Thursday and reached only Traffic Judge Vic Fleming, who confirmed the sequence of events. He said he learned of Moore’s decision Wednesday, the day after the board meeting. He talked to the other judges, studied the law and drafted a letter on the legality of the payment, which I had also previously received.
I asked Fleming about the planned payment of $237,000. He said he could only speak to his portion. He said the city had told him he was entitled to about $46,000 from accrued unpaid sick and vacation time based on records he’d submitted over his 20 years on the bench. Lightle has been a judge since 2007, Leverett since 2008.
One other budget note: Some of the spending from the 2011 city sales tax increase was obligated to specific purposes, such as the Little Rock Tech Park, a real estate development downtown that has so far put some $12 million in the pockets of landowners for buildings purchased for the project, mostly from the Stephens financial empire. In theory, payments for all projects except public safety were supposed to be reduced proportionately if tax revenues lagged. A report on forecast income versus expenditures to date hasn’t been compiled.
The director of the Little Rock Tech Park, Brent Birch, just got a 15 percent raise, to $120,000, retroactive to Oct. 1.
PS: A wrinkle in this: Mark Leverett has continued to have a private law practice while being paid $146,000 as a part-time city court judge. In theory, state judges may not have outside income. I’ve sent him a phone message asking about his plans in the future. I’m also attempting to find out how the other $190,000 in accrued time off is split between Lightle and Leverett.
UPDATE: Leverett said he didn’t know how much he was due in accrued pay and was surprised to find out it was possible. He said his private practice was limited — and not done while on city time — but said he understood that work would have to come to an end Jan. 1.
UPDATE II: Judge Alice Lightle returned my call Friday. She said she, too, was uncertain of how much time she was due, but said she kept records carefully as the city required because she’d always considered herself a city employee, as the statute says. She said the job was full-time in her court.
UPDATE III: I now have an indication the city’s original computation of $237,000 may be in error by a signficant amount for failure to include caps on compensable unused time off. Still seeking a final amount for all three judges.
UPDATE IV: The city has refigured the amounts due, if they are to be paid. The total payments to each, including FICA and Medicare:
So that makes the total $86,776. Details here.