One up, one down for city employees

Henderson’s city government is moving ahead with a proposal to recognize employees for excellence and not just longevity.

But while the concept of monthly or annual awards received an enthusiastic response during Thursday afternoon’s meeting of the Human Resources and Finance and Intergovernmental Relations committees, City Council members said they aren’t likely to approve an increase in tuition reimbursements for employees.

All council members except Ranger Wilkerson attended the meeting, although an ill FAIR Chairman Bernard Alston missed the discussion of a new employee recognition program.

It’s an idea promoted by Human Resources Committee Chairman Mike Rainey, in the hope of boosting employee morale and encouraging the best workers to stay with the city.

“A little pat on the back once in a while … means a lot to that person,” Rainey said.
He and the city’s human resources chief, Mary Cephas, are working on details of a proposal to bring before the council.

“We currently recognize employees for their years of service and retirement; however, an employee’s work performance should be recognized as well,” reads a preliminary proposal Cephas prepared.

To help employees buy into the program, they would be able to make nominations for the awards. Department heads would not be eligible.

Rainey said the program wouldn’t cost much. He envisions winners receiving a certificate or plaque, a gift certificate for a meal out, or an extra day or two off work.

No one in the conference room spoke against the idea, but several issues must be addressed, such as the frequency of the awards (monthly, quarterly, annually); whether different departments should be eligible each month; how to address the disparity in departments’ sizes; whether only new nominations would be considered each month; and how to incorporate supervisors’ opinions.

Cephas will research how other cities honor employees, and the council will wait for Rainey to report.

“It’s terrific that you’ve come up with this idea,” council member Lonnie Davis said.
A less popular idea is a proposal to boost the maximum tuition reimbursement for city employees from $800 to $1,200.

Cephas said the maximum the city will reimburse employees has been $800 since 1998. She said a request came from police officers to raise that reimbursement amount in response to the rising cost of tuition.

The city reimburses up to $800 of employee expenses for approved college courses that are related to their jobs or to potential stops on their career path with the city.

Employees must stay with the city for at least two years after taking the course.
Information Cephas supplied, however, showed that Henderson’s reimbursement already exceeds the education money of other municipalities. Roanoke Rapids, for instance, pays up to $350.

And full-time tuition at Vance-Granville Community College, despite rising in recent years, is only $608 per semester. A person could take up to 10 hours of classes in each of two semesters and remain below the city’s $800 reimbursement.
Cephas did not say how many city employees would be likely to incur job-related tuition bills of more than $800 in a year.

Given the city’s budget problems, no council members were willing to support a higher tuition reimbursement.

City Manager Eric Williams said the city couldn’t afford the increase.

“I would have to vote no,” Rainey said.

“I feel the same way,” Harriette Butler said.

“I do too,” Elissa Yount said.

In other matters Thursday, the council members:

* Held a lengthy discussion about the problem of returned checks and ultimately agreed that it isn’t that much of a problem.

At last week’s regular City Council meeting, council member Mike Rainey presented a report on the dozens of bad checks the city receives each month, usually for water bills. Facing the problem himself as the owner of City Tire, Rainey had wondered how the city handled bad checks after council member Mary Emma Evans launched a discussion on whether the city is too quick to cut off water to customers who don’t pay.

The city Water Department has no policy barring personal checks from repeat offenders, in part because so many people mail in their payments.

Still, Finance Director Traig Neal’s figures showed that the city usually gets its money after checks are returned for insufficient funds. For example, the city collected on 24 of 26 bad checks it received in October.

The main problem with water bills is the inability to collect when people with overdue accounts move out of town, Neal said.

Council member John Wester pointed out that because the city pays no bank fees for returned checks, because the writers of those checks have a $25 fee plus a late charge added to their accounts, and because the city has a good record of collecting on those accounts, bad checks actually are profitable for Henderson.

* Lined up behind a plan to spend $27,000 on an upgrade to the computer system behind the operations of the city’s Public Utilities Department. The money will come from a $250,000 capital reserve fund for water operations.

The system is responsible for, among other things, generating the water bills that produce the revenue the city relies on.

Neal and Williams said the current software dates from the 1980s, and the combination of software and server is decaying quickly. Problems pop up regularly, and the system could die within months.

The only real question before the council was whether to go with the upgrade or to buy an all-new system for $100,000.

Neal put that question to rest when he explained that regardless of the software choice, the package will include the same hardware, a server with an expected life of five years. That means the extra $73,000 wouldn’t buy the city much, so the consensus was to go with the cheaper option.

“I don’t think we have a lot of choice,” Alston said.

* Received word that the Kerr Lake Regional Water System, managed by the city, is getting a $158,340.23 insurance payment in connection with the failure of the water plant’s generator in October.

The 30-year-old generator, a mandatory backup to the flow of electricity from Progress Energy, had a spectacular death when it couldn’t be shut down. Even the cutoff of fuel failed to stop the generator from destroying itself, the council heard in the fall from the water plant director at the time, Mike Hicks. The generator’s lubricating oil fed its insatiable, fatal need for fuel.

The water system purchased a slightly used generator for $311,000 but incurred more than $45,000 in lease charges for a temporary replacement plus significant, not-yet-totaled other expenses.

Neal advised that the council dedicate the insurance payment to replacing the money that came out of the water system’s operating budget to handle the emergency. He said the city should use the leftover insurance funds to pay down the loan on the replacement generator.

A budget amendment with the final numbers isn’t likely to be ready for Monday’s council meeting.

* Made no arrangements for the logistics of Monday’s public forum on the city’s 2004 audit.

Williams raised the issue of how to run the forum, but council members were eager to end the committee meeting after nearly two hours.

Rainey said he thought Monday’s session would be a FAIR Committee meeting. It will not.

Instead, council members, senior city staff, the city’s auditor and any interested members of the public will gather at the Municipal Building at 5:30 p.m. for a question-and-answer session on Henderson’s low fund balance, its Embassy Square expenses and any other issues arising from the audit.

The session could last until the regular council meeting at 7:30.

It’s the first public forum Henderson has held in response to an audit, so no one knows what to expect. It’s not even certain who will run the session.

As FAIR chairman, Alston last week called for the forum. Williams said Mayor Clem Seifert wants Alston to preside at the forum, and Alston said he’s “willing to wear the black hat” and fill that role.

Butler, however, said the mayor should lead the session.

Williams said he will have extensive background on the fund balance and the Embassy project, but he said that reading through that information, rather than waiting for specific questions, could consume the forum’s time.

The public will have to wait until Monday for answers to the logistical and substantive questions.