Our Opinion: Wilsonians have chance to weigh in on city budget

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Wilson County commissioners listened to their constituents, rolling back a proposed 3 percent increase in property tax during Monday evening’s meeting.

Will the Wilson City Council show the same level of responsiveness on Thursday if residents turn up to voice displeasure with the council’s plan to give itself a 37 percent raise?

By failing to resolve the controversy over pay hikes earlier in the budget cycle, council members have painted themselves into a corner. On the night officials will vote on a $234.9 million budget, an expenditure slightly south of $20,000 is likely to be the biggest sticking point.

Each councilman stands to receive a $1,998 annual increase, boosting his stipend from $5,400 to $7,398. Board members also receive a $3,300 travel allowance, which would not be subject to change.

It’s not a lot of money, proportionally speaking, but for councilmen on both sides of the issue, it comes down to a matter of principle.

Donald Evans, A.P. Coleman, Michael Bell, Logan Liles and Derrick Creech voted Jan. 23 to add the pay hike to Wilson’s 2017-18 budget. James Johnson and Tom Fyle voted against the raises. Mayor Bruce Rose, who only votes to break a tie, said he wants to refuse his share of the extra money.

The five-member majority points out that Wilson City Council salaries have remained flat for 17 years while inflation has steadily risen, and the councilmen say a stingy stipend could deter young leaders with bold new visions for the city from seeking a seat on the board.

The two contrarian councilmen say public service shouldn’t be a moneymaking proposition and that 37 percent is too big a chunk to take in a single year.

Because raises were added to the proposed budget by way of a surprise motion, we side with Johnson and Fyle. The move smacked of furtiveness, a hand darting into the taxpayers’ cookie jar.

If councilmen wanted public input, they would have, at minimum, listed the raises on their meeting agenda. A public hearing wasn’t required for that preliminary vote but could have been scheduled anyway.

The kerfuffle has overshadowed budgetary bright spots. Wilson’s spending plan includes a 4 percent rate reduction for Wilson Energy customers, chewing off another bite of the N.C. Eastern Municipal Power Agency debt that bloats our bills. Welcome news as the summer sun kicks air conditioners into overdrive.

Wilson plans to hire four new police officers, allowing our department to continue its laudable community and youth outreach efforts while keeping patrolmen on the streets. There’s also $60,000 allocated for the first phase of extra turnout gear for city firefighters, enabling them to change between calls and reduce contamination from the chemicals their fire suits accumulate.

But for better or worse, the 37 percent pay raise will probably be on the front burner when the council convenes at 7 p.m. Thursday.

Wilsonians, this is your chance to weigh in. Make your way to City Hall, take your place at the podium and speak your mind during the public hearing on the 2017-18 budget.

It’s your right to be heard. It’s your councilmen’s collective responsibility to listen.