Smyrna increases cost of Village Green Park by $500,000, approves staff merit increases

The exterior of Smyrna City Hall, a red brick building with four large columns

by Arielle Robinson

Smyrna approved two things of interest at its city council meeting Monday evening.

Staff merit increases

First, city councilors unanimously approved the FY 2023 staff merit increases, cost of living adjustment, an adjustment to the pay bands, and an added supplement for certified public safety positions.

This all is effective Jan. 1, 2023.

City Administrator Joseph Bennett read the following from the city’s issue sheet:

“A part of the classification and compensation study conducted by the University of Georgia-Carl Vinson Institute of Government that was adopted by Council was the maintenance of the pay bands annually. When these pay bands were adopted, Council stressed they did not want to end up in the same situation where the pay bands were falling behind the market rates. The study recommended annual adjustments to the pay bands based on one of two factors, Employment Cost Index (ECI) or Consumer Price Index (CPI).

“The ECI at September 30, 2022, is 4.6 percent and CPI is 8.2 percent. Staff is recommending adjustment to the bands based on the ECI rate for 2023. Since this is the first year of adjustment under the new plan and because of the large growth in the inflation rate, staff feels the ECI would be a better rate to set the precedent of adjustment on. We recommend supplementing the ECI with annual merit increases at the rates utilized in the past.

“Merit raises at January 1, 2023, were included in the contingencies lines items in each of the individual funds. Initial amounts budgeted totaled $367,383. These budgeted amounts were decreased by $43,784.92 in July 2022 due to incorrect pay grade placement for several positions that were identified after initial adoption. Remaining amount in contingencies for merit is $323,598.08.

“The City is experiencing difficulty hiring and retaining employees in the certified public safety positions with the constant changes occurring recently in other jurisdictions. In an effort to recruit new employees and retain our current employees, staff is recommending an additional $2,000 pay increase for these positions.

“The estimated total for a 4.6 percent COLA, merit raises at 1.5 percent (performance rating of 2), 2.5 percent (performance rating of 3), and 3.5 percent (performance ratings of 4 and 5), and the $2,000 additional increase for certified public safety positions totals $1.3 million at January 1, 2023, including FICA. There is an additional $226,521 in unallocated contingency in the General Fund that will assist in providing these raises. This leaves a budgeted deficit of approximately $750,000 which will be funded by savings from vacant positions and expenditure savings this fiscal year.

“At the Budget Committee meeting held on November 21, 2023, the committee agreed to cover the remaining amount with a one-time use of ARPA funds for the remainder of FY 2023. If revenues for FY 2023 outpace the estimated amounts, the City will utilize those amounts in lieu of use of ARPA funds. The Committee does not want to utilize the ARPA funds to maintain these new pay bands in the FY 2024 budget; they want to ensure they are funded by operational revenues so they are sustainable. The Committee agreed that during the FY 2024 budget process areas of cost savings would be analyzed and utilized to ensure the future funding of these pay increases.”

Mayor Derek Norton thanked city staff for figuring out the best way to address what he said were the continually moving goalposts.

“Every time we do a raise for public safety, somebody else does one,” Norton said. “It’s been a very tough labor market. This plan is a good way to take care of the people who take care of us. I’ll just be frank—we inherited a mess with how they were taken care of in the past. So this is a way to right the ship and I’m really pleased that this is being brought forward.”

Councilman Charles “Corkey” Welch, who has been on the council since being elected in 2011, disagreed with Norton when the latter said the city inherited a mess.

“We did everything we could do to get raises and give incentives to keep people on, including bonuses at two and five years,” Welch said.

“I don’t mean there wasn’t effort,” Norton responded. “I mean that there was a mess as far as having done the pay study before but not maintaining it, it wasn’t maintained.”

Councilmember Tim Gould followed up on Welch’s comment.

“There is a lot of work that has to be done, and I feel positive that we have intentions to stick to the plan and that we’ll move forward and do it,” Gould said. “It’s a difficult process, to make sacrifices to other parts of the budget, but it’s important because like you [Norton] said earlier, these are the folks that take care of us.”

Councilmember Susan Wilkinson, who was also elected in 2011, spoke on the matter.

“When Corkey and I first got on council there was a recession, and the city had to make a lot of cutbacks in terms of staff and part-time workers and the landscaping contractors, so I’m just looking at that period of time when we went through that and I think we have been doing things—even through our last administration and this one as well, so I’m happy to support what we’re doing tonight,” Wilkinson said.

Village Green Park cost increase

In a 4-2 vote, city council approved a budgeted amendment to the adopted FY 2023 budget to increase the project budget for the Village Green Park by $500,000.

The funds will come from the fund balance reserves in the city’s General Fund.

Councilmembers Wilkinson and Welch voted against the item. Councilman Travis Lindley was absent Monday night due to traveling.

An RFP of $1,000,000 was formerly given to Winter Construction to complete the Village Green Park, which will be near StillFire Brewing to the south.

Bennett provided the reason why the park portion has been increased by $500,000.

“Due to grading issues at the site and an increase in cost of the finishes to match the Downtown Park across the street, an additional $500,000 is needed to complete the project,” the city administrator said.

Bennett said that when the initial award was granted, city staff and Pond and Company were completely unaware of the grading needed at the site.

“There is quite a substantial grade elevation change from Atlanta Road to the King Street entrance to the park area,” Bennett said. “This grade change has had a few different effects on the original budgeted amount, with increased walls, increased grading work, increased moving work of the dirt.

“We have been through many, many iterations of the park with both Pond and Company and Winter Construction to find the most economical way to get the grade change down to King Street. We have a conceptual plan of doing this, but in order to use the materials that match the downtown greenspace, Winter Construction has given us an estimate of an additional $500,000 needed.”

The park and the brewery are part of the city’s downtown redevelopment project, which has been a topic of controversy for about a year and a half.

Wilkinson and Welch previously voted against the city selling the greenspace near the Community Center so that a brewery could go there.

In January of this year, the Courier reported on how the original plan for paying for the park was to come out of the $600,000 in proceeds from the land sale to Market Village Realty, the entity associated with StillFire.

Village Green Park is planned to have a playground, stage, and pet-friendly area.

During the January meeting, the council had a back-and-forth on the park and its costs. City officials acknowledged during that time that the costs may end up exceeding the $600,000.

Now the costs for the park are at $1,500,000.

Welch spoke out in disapproval of the $500,000 increase Monday night.

“Somewhere along the way, something went awry,” Welch said. “Because when it went to Winter Construction for pricing, they should have had enough to provide us with a price to build the project.

“…We conceptually agreed to sell the land to the brewery for $600,000, and initially we were going to put the $600,000 toward the park. Then the price went to a million dollars—now the price is at a million and a half—and somewhere along the way, we lost track of what was supposed to happen out there. I don’t know if it’s the engineer’s problem or Winter Construction’s problem, but it shouldn’t have happened this way.

“I’m not going to support this project for that reason, and for the reason that I believe this park benefits the brewery more than it benefits the city of Smyrna.”

Gould said he thinks the park will be a great benefit to the city.

“The design I think is appropriate, it’s not too much, it’s substantial enough that when it’s completed our residents will look and say it was designed well and a lot of thought had gone into it, and I think it will be a wise investment for the city to make this change,” Gould said.

Arielle Robinson is a student at Kennesaw State University. She also freelances for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and is the former president of KSU’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as well as a former CNN intern. She enjoys music, reading, and live shows.