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The Bismarck City Commission

The Bismarck City Commission. From left, Nancy Guy, Shawn Oban, Mayor Steve Bakken, Steve Marquardt and Greg Zenker.

The Bismarck City Commission approved a 3.5% salary range increase for city workers in a 3-2 vote Wednesday.

Commissioners Shawn Oban, Nancy Guy and Steve Marquardt voted in favor of the increase, while Mayor Steve Bakken and Commissioner Greg Zenker voted against it.

The Budget Committee recommended the increase -- a 2.5% jump based on the Employment Cost Index, a measure of labor increases across the country that’s published quarterly by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the remaining 1% based on merit.

Zenker said he felt the merit part of the salary increase was too low and would reduce the role of managers.

“Everyone’s going to get a base pay of a 2.5% increase. And then our managers say, ‘Here’s 1% I get to split amongst my other 20 employees,’” Zenker said. “We don’t ever get to differentiate between those people who go the extra mile every day and those who push the clock from eight to five.”

Oban disagreed that the merit portion of the salary needed to be raised.

It is the responsibility of leadership to set an example and employ “folks who don’t need a little bump,” he responded. “If you are a leader in your department, you are going to find people to (take initiative). I do think that the 1% allows some of that.”

Bakken said during debate that he had concerns with the increase and that there needed to be more discussion before commissioners approved it.

“We work for the residents of Bismarck and the taxpayers of Bismarck and I have a hard time, when we are looking at reduced finances with tax rates coming in at a lower rate, property taxes flattening out, handing out raises other than what is extremely essential personnel,” said Bakken, referring to fire and police employees.

Guy said it's important to make sure city employees’ salaries are competitive with wages in other North Dakota cities.

“Just because we have some ‘revenue woes’ I don’t think we should be punishing our employees for that by not paying them in parity with their counterparts working the same jobs all over town,” she said.

After city commissioners voted on the 3.5% salary range increase, Oban proposed $650,306 for adjusting police and fire department salaries for positions dealing with high turnover rates, which commissioners passed unanimously. Commissioners also approved an additional $90,769 for adding a second full-time public health nurse position.

Although Marquardt voted in favor of the proposals, he said the 3.5% percent salary increase was already supposed to help address retention in Bismarck’s police and fire departments.

“To a certain extent, I was hoping that we were going to wait with the police and fire (fund) for a little bit, see how it had played out with the 3.5 (percent increase),” he said.

The public hearing for the city’s 2020 budget will be held Sept. 24, after which the commission will vote on final approval.

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Reach Andy Tsubasa Field at 701-250-8264 or andy.field@bismarcktribune.com.

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City Government Reporter