Showing up for work has its rewards

PINETOP-LAKESIDE — While many business are struggling to find employees to work, the Town of Pinetop-Lakeside rewarded their essential work employees for coming to work during the pandemic with a $2.00 per hour pay increase, effective Sept. 19.

Town Manager Keith Johnson reported to council at the Sept. 16 meeting that the town received $746,000 in July from the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (CSLFRF) from the State of Arizona. He said the fund was established through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for assistance for municipalities to meet the challenges the town has experienced, and is still experiencing, as the pandemic continues to surge throughout the state, county and community.

“Our employees worked on a daily basis, possibly exposing them to the COVID virus, and I would like to add that throughout this entire pandemic they have been there everyday and have not shied away from their responsibilities,” said Johnson.

For information purposes, Johnson stated that “since January 2020, the U.S. has had over 41 million cases of the virus and more than 669,000 deaths, and the State of Arizona has recorded over 1 million cases and more than 19,000 deaths.

“Today I am asking the council to consider approving a premium pay increase of $2 per hour for the rest of the fiscal year of 2021-2022 for employees who are deemed essential workers in critical infrastructure positions,” said Johnson.

Johnson said that CSLFRF defines essential workers as employees who regularly perform in person work, so they have to be on the job, not working remotely; they need to interact with others at work or physically handle items handled by others; and these positions and employees are considered critical in order to protect the health and well being of residents.

“Under this definition all town employees would be considered essential workers in critical infrastructure positions. Governments receiving fiscal critical recovery funds have broad latitude to designate critical infrastructure sectors.” said Johnson.

Johnson asked the council to approve the funds from the CSLFRF for the rest of this fiscal year and to make the increase permanent in the future, if warranted, following a planned salary study which the town plans to have completed during this year. He said the hope is that the completed study will warrant leaving the increase in place.

Johnson said the town will receive an equal amount from the CSLFRF next July, 2022. Budgetary wise, the town can only approve the use of funds through this year unless they choose to make it a permanent raise through the general fund.

Councilor Lynn Krigbaum asked if the funds were not used entirely this year if they could continue to be used until they are exhausted, and if not, are there other ideas being considered so they will be used.

Johnson answered that the town has until 2026 to use all of the funds and currently there is no plan for the rest of the funds. He said they initially had some great ideas as to how they would spend the funds but as the rules came out and were more defined, they became more limiting to municipalities. He said they would soon be entering their budgetary season and it is on the agenda for the January council retreat to discuss how to expend the funds.

“We have not suffered a lot in the way of economic harm, so we cannot justify adding to the budget that way,” said Johnson.

Councilor Paul Watson said, “You have until 2026 to expend the funds, but they have to be obligated by 2024. My question is, if we decide to continue this program, and we say we are going to continue this premium pay through 2026, does that qualify for obligation if we do it by 2024?

“If the money’s in the budget, I guess we can obligate it further,” said Johnson.

Mayor Stephanie Irwin asked, “But, wouldn’t we use next year’s allocation for next year?”

Watson said, “I am just saying that if we determine that out of that 700 plus thousand dollars that we have, that this is a program that we are going to continue, it will last us more than a couple years, right? So then, we could continue to utilize this all the way until 2026 if it lasts, but we have to obligate it by 2024?

Johnson said, “Yes.”

Irwin said,”That’s an interesting take on it though. Does that sound like the way regulations are reading to you, Kevin, because it seems to me like it is more for something concrete. Employee raises are concrete but as far as something tangible – property?”

Finance Director/Assistant Town Manager Kevin Rodolph agreed saying they are obligated at this point in time and he did not see a problem with that.

Krigbaum asked Rodolph for clarification regarding her understanding that they just have to do one year at a time, which he confirmed.

The council unanimously approved the $2.00 per hour increase for critical infrastructure employees starting with the pay period beginning Sept, 19, 2021.

Reach the reporter at bbruce@wmicentral.com

Barbara Bruce is a reporter for the White Mountain Independent, covering arts and entertainment on the Mountain and the Pinetop-Lakeside town government.

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