Gulfport City Council’s Tuesday, May 2, meeting featured well over an hour of discussion and public comment about Mayor Sam Henderson’s proposal to boost the monthly stipend paid out to him and fellow councilmembers Christine Brown, Michael Fridovich, Dan Liedtke and Yolanda Roman.
At its April 18 meeting, council agreed to bring forth an ordinance that would see the mayor’s monthly stipend increase from $1,000 to $2,000, and councilmembers’ monthly stipend rise from $750 to $1,500. It would also make the mayor and council members eligible to join the city’s health insurance plan and deferred compensation program. At the time, Liedtke and Roman expressed deep opposition to the ordinance and said they would both vote “no” if it passed its first reading as written.
On Tuesday, however, following a barrage of public opposition to the plan, Henderson backed down. He said he was willing to scale back the increases to $1,600 for the mayor and $1,200 for councilmembers.
“While it might seem like a drastic jump, I assure you it is not,” he said, reading from prepared remarks. “Had council been given a four percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) since 2000, our stipends would currently be $1,558 for mayor and $1,169 for council and we would not be having this discussion.”
Henderson stressed that the job of mayor and councilmember have been increasingly complex and difficult in recent years thanks to the rise of social media and growing number of events putting demands on council’s time, plus the fact that Gulfport is a full-service city that’s “on the radar more than ever before.” He said he sometimes has to choose between working shifts at his other job and attending events in his role as mayor. Brown echoed Henderson’s concerns about time demands, saying she missed nine days of work at her teaching job last year because of her city council responsibilities.
Henderson’s pleas fell on deaf ears, for the most part.
“It’s a huge pay raise,” said Gulfport resident April Thanos, who ran against Liedtke for the Ward 1 council seat last year. “You’ve been on council all this time,” she added, referring to Henderson’s eight years in office, “and you could have done this more incrementally. This is not reasonable. It looks greedy and I don’t think it’s fair.”
Many speakers expressed concern that the ordinance doesn’t improve the lot of other part-time employees, who aren’t eligible for health insurance coverage through the city.
“Take care of city employees before you take care of yourselves,” said Gulfport resident Margaret Tober. Henderson responded by pointing out that, under his proposal, health insurance premiums and deferred compensation deductions would be taken out of the monthly stipend before it was paid out to the mayor and councilmembers.
“My intention was to play catch up with something that’s been a long time coming,” Henderson said. “I’m also asking for raises for other employees, as well. I don’t think the increase is unreasonable, but I’m willing to walk away from it completely rather than scale it back and drag out the discussion over a number of months to come.”
Henderson, however, found some support in the audience. During public comment about the proposed ordinance, Gerry O’Regan said, “It’s not fair to compare the average part-time worker with the level of professionalism we expect from our mayor and council. This increase is not going to break the bank. We value what you do for our city.”
Another speaker urged those in attendance who felt the mayor and council deserved a raise, but not as lofty as the one proposed, to stand up. More than half of the meeting attendees stood up.
Henderson received the message and offered to reduce the monthly stipend increases to $1,200 for mayor and $900 for councilmembers. He also said he would remove the call for the mayor and council members to be eligible for city-subsidized health insurance coverage.
Fridovich supported the mayor’s original pay-increase proposal and made a motion to accept it, which was seconded by Brown – “so we can discuss it,” she said – but said he would back a reduced compensation boost. Brown said the entire situation was “awkward” for the mayor and council “but it’s the only way for us to bring it up – we just have to put ourselves out there.”
Roman, however, was not swayed by the mayor’s willingness to compromise. “We can’t make this change unless we do our homework and fully understand the performance attributes of the job,” she said.
Eventually, Fridovich amended his motion to include language reducing the monthly stipends to $1,200 for mayor and $900 for council and removing eligibility for health coverage. Brown seconded the motion and it was put to a vote. The ordinance was approved 4-1, with Roman voting against. The ordinance will have a second reading at the Tuesday, May 16 meeting before council votes on whether to implement it.
Budget Discussions Begin
City Manager Jim O’Reilly led a discussion toward the end of the meeting about the city’s upcoming 2017-18 budget. Each councilmember took a turn addressing what they see as budget priorities for the next fiscal year.
Roman mentioned the need for more pumper trucks to deal with sanitary sewer overflow (SSO) events.
“We have a good plan” for that, O’Reilly said. “But to get it to a low-enough cost, we need some bigger players to be involved.”
Roman also called for more recycling bins in the city’s downtown waterfront district, particularly along the beach.
Brown called for an across-the-board 3.5 percent COLA for all city employees, both full and part time.
“I’m just blown away by the work they do,” she said. “I mean, look at the fact that you could go down to the beach the day after the powerboat races, and aside from one truck still parked there, it was beautiful. They work so hard, and I want to reward that. It’s a great staff.”
Boat Races Bring Praise, Concern
The April 28 to 30 Gulfport Grand Prix powerboat racing event was a topic of public comment at the outset of the meeting. O’Maddy’s owner Joe Guenther, who served as the event’s food and beverage director, thanked the council for its support of the inaugural Grand Prix and said attendance over the weekend was robust, with 12,000 people showing up on Saturday and 14,000 on Sunday.
Other speakers expressed concern about the environmental and economic effects of the Formula 1 powerboat racing spectacle, saying the boats disturbed seagrass and might have affected the area’s water quality. One speaker said the boats churned up sewage outflow that led to fumes in the air that sickened him and his wife. Others complained about how the lack of parking over the weekend caused would-be restaurant patrons to cancel their reservations at local eateries, while some called for the city to conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis of the event.
“The fact that the boat races shut down the city for three days is excessive,” said Gulfport resident Dena Lebowitz.
Guenther responded to some of those concerns, saying the race organizers sold beverages served in cups made from recycled materials and minimized their use of plastic straws. They also hired a helicopter to fly over the racecourse throughout the weekend in an effort to spot manatees.
“We saw one manatee on Saturday,” he said, “and we immediately stopped the race and waited for it to swim out of the area.”