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City workers get surprise pay raise

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- City of Charleston employees will get a surprise mid-year pay raise, thanks to a budget surplus and an improving economy, City Council members agreed Monday.

The 3 percent increase, effective next week, is the first across-the-board pay raise for city employees since July 1, 2009. It affects all full-time staff, including police and firefighters, except for elected officials, City Manager David Molgaard said.

The pay raise was Mayor Danny Jones' idea, Molgaard said. "We believe we have a very good crew. Unfortunately they've had to suffer, as has everybody, in the recessionary times.

"It still doesn't catch them up. This by no means puts them where they'd be before the downturn since July 2009."

Civic Center and parking system employees will also get similar pay raises, as part of a series of budget amendments council members passed Monday.

"Every year at about this time we program money left on the books from last [fiscal] year," Molgaard said.

Nearly $3.4 million of unspent funds were "encumbered," and remain in designated accounts for future use -- $700,000 in a city manager's account for professional services, $1 million for legal claims, almost $1 million for storm-water engineering. The city manager's account could be used to redesign Slack Plaza or for the new Holley Hotel site project, Molgaard said.

"We had just over $1.2 million remaining," he said. The pay raises will cost about $750,000, and another $400,000 will go toward paying down the unfunded balances in the police and firefighters pension funds.

Revenues are also up, Molgaard said, especially the business and occupation tax -- the single largest source of money for the city.

"B&O collections are up more than 9 percent over last year at this time, and 4 percent over what we budgeted," he said.

Jones shared credit for the pay raise plan, and cited Molgaard's "good stewardship of our finances. If we don't pay these people, they're going to go somewhere else."

In other business Monday, council members agreed to redirect $2.2 million previously saved for the Kanawha Trestle project to a new plan to build a dual bike lane along Kanawha Boulevard on the West Side. The money includes a $1.78-million earmark from the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and $444,600 of matching funds from the city.

Molgaard said state and federal highways officials approve the new use of the Byrd funds, and have been working with the city on the project.

"After meeting with state highways people, everyone thought it was appropriate to have a public meeting to gauge public reaction." The public meeting was held Sept. 18 at the Culture Center, folded into a broader meeting with consultants for the Imagine Charleston process, he said.

"As far as I know, public opinion was favorable. The public comment period is still open. We'll take comment for 30 days," Molgaard said.

"The next step is to advertise for scope of services for design. That will take at least two weeks. We're looking at two or three council meetings down the road before we would award a contract for design services."

The idea is to carve out two 5-foot-wide bike lanes along the riverside of the Boulevard, from Magic Island to Patrick Street, by eliminating the center median, trimming lane widths and eliminating some parking spaces. No vehicle lanes would be eliminated.

By shifting bike traffic onto the street, the existing walkway would be reserved for pedestrians and runners.

Molgaard said he hoped the work could be done with the $2.2 million that council members designated Monday. Another federal grant for the trestle, about $760,000 obtained by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., will be held in reserve, he said.

"This is still very much of the trestle project," he said. "It's just not about the structure itself."

He said he'd spoken to Dennis Strawn, a chief supporter of the plan to transform the trestle into a biking and walking bridge. An engineering study last year found it would cost $16 million or more to fully fix all problems with the trestle, effectively killing the project. "I think he understands the situation. We were in position to lose the funds."

The city might still try to acquire the trestle from CSX, he said. "It's still part of the overall vision. But unless the resources appear, that's going to be on the far back burner.

"With no money, there's no point [in acquiring it]. It becomes a liability, another unfunded liability."

Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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