By Nancy E. Oates
The hashtag trending on Twitter and Instagram evokes solidarity among the healthy and the sick, the employed and the paycheck-less, in the chaos wrought by COVID-19. Knowing we could all move at a moment’s notice from the enviable category to the terrifying one, we pledge to support one another until the virus passes.
But sometimes our good intentions buckle under pressure. A crack appeared in the budget Chapel Hill Town Manager Maurice Jones presented to Town Council Wednesday night.
To his credit, Jones did an admirable job of protecting core services to the town though revenue to pay for it all is projected to decline noticeably. Jones compacted last year’s budget of $113,447,530 into a budget this year of $110,885,256, a 2.2 percent reduction, without a property tax rate increase or planned furloughs or layoffs.
Of course, something had to give. Among the detritus on the cutting-room floor were repairs to the Hargraves Center and Northside gym and the fire station next to Town Hall, as well as a 37 percent reduction in a fund for unexpected critical repairs to facilities.
But one line in the budget pierced my heart: The town had secured permission from Orange County Living Wage to wait six months before raising the hourly wage from $14.25 to $14.90. The living wage rate for employees who receive health insurance benefits from the town is $13.40, up from $12.75 last year.
COVID-19 has been devastating to the working class. They start to make a little progress, and boom, now they have to wait six months for a 65-cent hourly pay increase.
Typically, the town pays the living wage standard to seasonal and program support employees. The budget does not break out how many employees classified as living wage workers, and thus exempt from the freeze, are on the town payroll, but the 65-cent-per-hour increase amounts to a $650 pay raise for a full-time employee for half a year.
Jones’ budget has frozen employee salaries for the coming year, so the living wage employees would be the only ones getting a raise. For those on the lower end of the pay scale, that hurts. But those at the top end are well-insulated. Department heads and executives receive about $170,000 to $190,000 a year. Jones is paid about $210,000 annually.
Corporations across the country are cutting executive salaries by 20 percent or more in response to the COVID-19 crisis. At Wednesday’s council meeting, I urged the manager to trim town executives’ salaries by 10 percent for this year only, to strengthen the “we’re all in this together” sentiment and to give him a little more wiggle room in the budget. (His sales tax revenue projections seemed overly optimistic.)
A temporary 10 percent salary reduction wouldn’t impact the executives’ quality of life at all. They’d still be able to pay their mortgage or rent and make their car payments. They wouldn’t have to switch to house-brand coffee or lower their thermostat come winter.
I know the arguments Jones might hear from his managers: “We’ve worked hard to get where we are; we’ve made sacrifices; we’ve made good financial decisions. Why are we being punished?”
But it’s not punishment; it’s sharing their good fortune. Not everyone in the working class is there by making bad choices or because they didn’t work hard.
I’d like to see the town budget put our Chapel Hill values into practice this year. Share, and show that we really are #allinthistogether.
Nancy E. Oates is a former member of the Chapel Hill Town Council.