Nikuyah Walker

Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker listens as community members share their hopes for the fiscal year 2019 budget at a recent forum at CitySpace.

The minimum wage for employees of the city of Charlottesville could inch closer to $15 an hour later this year if the City Council agrees to add $115,000 to the nearly $180 million budget the city manager has proposed for fiscal year 2019.

After voting to increase the city’s “living wage” from $13.52 to $13.79 last year, the council is now considering whether to increase it to $14.40 in the upcoming fiscal year.

Mayor Nikuyah Walker, who could see a bump in the minimum wage she earns as an employee in the parks and recreation department, previously, as an employee and now as a councilor, has advocated for increasing the minimum wage to promote equity and support the city's lowest paid employees. 

In a budget work session last month, after Councilors Mike Signer and Kathy Galvin promptly voiced their discomfort after the mayor referenced her job during a discussion about the minimum wage, the city’s acting attorney said Walker could discuss the matter, but would need to disclose her job status.

Walker declined multiple interview requests last week.

In initial remarks about the budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, City Manager Maurice Jones said he did not propose increasing the living wage after last year’s bump. He said the city is continuing to work to increase pay for longer-tenured and skilled employees who were making only slightly more than $13.79 an hour.

The proposed budget includes $1.4 million for a 3 percent pay increase for all city employees and $160,000 for further wage compression adjustments. As the city already is planning to increase employees’ wages, Assistant City Manager Leslie Beauregard said, all but 15 of the 45 full- and part-time employees making less than $14.40 an hour already were going to see their hourly pay surpass that amount in July.

She said about $97,000 of the proposed $115,000 expenditure to increase the minimum wage would fund bringing the hourly rate for temporary employees to $14.40 and address wage compression for other longer-term temporary employees. The remainder of the $115,000 would be used to pay larger contracting costs and increasing the pay for the 15 employees who would otherwise be making less than $14.40.

City officials did not provide a count or estimate of how many seasonal or temporary employees would benefit from the increase to the minimum wage.

“There are many of those in that category as you can imagine, and starting July 1st, anyone in that category will receive or be hired at the new rate,” if the $115,000 is included in the adopted budget for next year, Beauregard said.

According to the adopted budget for the current fiscal year, the city allocated $510,000 for “living wage adjustments” and $870,000 for a 2 percent pay increase for all employees.

Accounting for the wage compression and additional wage increases for police officers and some other city employees, the city also allocated $1.3 million last year for “salary equity adjustments.”

In recent budget work sessions, councilors have debated whether to increase the minimum wage and how it might be funded. Beauregard said the council requested an estimate for what it would cost to get the minimum wage halfway from $13.79 to $15 an hour.

She did not provide an estimate for what it would cost in fiscal year 2020 to increase the wage to $15 an hour or what the city might allocate to address wage compression that would be created by increasing the minimum wage even further next year.

Earlier in March, as the city weighed how it might increase revenue to pay for additional expenditures, Walker said she would like to consider taking the funding earmarked for wage compression to continue increasing wages.

Galvin and Councilor Heather Hill previously have expressed concern that not addressing wage compression could lead to employee turnover and “morale” issues.

 

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While the likelihood of increasing the minimum wage seems far better than it did a month ago, per recently proposed amendments to the budget, Signer last month expressed concern about remarks Walker made while speaking about the wage.

“This feels like a conflict [of interest],” Signer said after Walker indicated that she also would “speak as an employee” during a discussion about the wage.

Intervening, Jones asked Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robertson to weigh in on the matter.

Robertson said Walker needed to make it clear that she cannot base council discussions on “whatever impact it might have on her individually.”

“She should reassure everyone that she is capable of having this debate based on her role as a councilor rather than her individual status as an employee,” she said.

Signer said he was specifically concerned about how Walker approached the discussion.

“I don’t think you can say you’re changing roles,” he said. “I don’t think that’s permitted.”

Prior to being elected to her first term on the council last year, Walker regularly advocated for increasing the minimum wage.

Walker responded to Signer by saying that she’s discussed her employment status with Jones, and reasserted that she would leave her job in the parks and recreation department rather than not advocate for increasing the wage.

Walker said she was acknowledging that she works for the city and is familiar with the issue, both as an employee and a long-time advocate for social equity.

“I’m not saying it’s because I’m an employee,” she said. “I’m just being open about what I’ve been doing the last three years.”

 

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Last year, when the minimum wage was increased and extended to approximately 350 seasonal and temporary employees who were not previously eligible for it, then-Councilor Kristin Szakos commended Walker for her advocacy around the issue.

According to city officials, Walker currently makes $13.97 an hour as a recreation aide in a temporary position. Her name does not appear in recent annual reports on employees who make more than $10,000 a year, though other temporary and part-time employees do appear in the list.

Responding to questions about Walker’s employment status in January, shortly after the council elected her mayor, then-City Attorney Craig Brown also said Walker may participate in council discussions that may impact her personally.

“As a member of City Council, there may be occasions where Ms. Walker has to make a public disclosure that a particular transaction before council may have an effect on her in her capacity as a city employee (i.e., when City Council discusses whether city employees should be given a raise this year),” Brown said.

“After making that disclosure, she can still participate in the matter as a councilor if she decides she can do so fairly, objectively and in the public interest,” he said.

A staff attorney for the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council declined to comment on the matter and did not provide information about previous advisory opinions related to the subject of elected officials who also work as employees of the municipality they serve.

Another attorney who is a member of the advisory council also declined to comment on the matter, saying she did not want to give any kind of false impression based on secondary sources because certain facts can determine whether there are violations.

Asked whether anyone had contacted him about Walker’s employment status and any potential conflicts of interest, Brown shared an anonymous email that was sent to him, Jones, Walker, two top-level parks and recreation officials and the city’s human resources director on Jan. 6. He said a reporter for another local news publication also called him to ask about the topic.

The email said those officials would be placed in “an extremely difficult and unique position” because Walker would be both “a subordinate and a superior to each of you.”

“This issue should be addressed before it becomes a newsworthy issue to be another dark spot on our city,” the email said.

The author of the email did not respond to a message sent to the Gmail account.

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Chris Suarez is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact him at (434) 978-7274, csuarez@dailyprogress.com or @Suarez_CM  on Twitter.

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