Rock Hill council approves utility fee hikes, pay raise for themselves

Rock Hill City Council members gave their initial approval on Monday night to a $204 million spending plan for the next fiscal year, which includes a monthly utility fee increase of $7.66 for the average residential customer.

The budget discussion included little debate until council members considered whether to give themselves a 3 percent cost-of-living pay raise, which would be effective in 2016.

A majority of council members voted in favor of the raise, saying periodic pay increases should prevent Rock Hill’s elected body from falling behind as it has over recent years.

Like other spending-related votes Monday night, a second vote will be held on the pay raises on June 23. The council must approve such changes during two public meetings.

If the pay raise passes a second vote, Rock Hill’s six council members each will make $16,838 – a $490 raise – annually, starting in 2016 after the next election cycle. The mayor will make $26,437 annually – a $770 raise.

In October, all council members except Councilwoman Kathy Pender voted for a pay raise that nearly doubled the council and mayor’s salaries. It was the first time the salaries had been increased in nearly 25 years.

Over that time, many council members say their responsibilities have grown because Rock Hill and its city services have grown.

The proposed 3 percent increase for 2016 came after Rock Hill leaders considered inflation over the past two years and the rate of salary increases that city employees have received. This year’s budget proposal includes a 2 percent pay raise for Rock Hill employees. Last year, employees saw a 1.5 percent raise.

Councilman Kevin Sutton was quick to say on Monday that the council should reject a pay raise for itself. He made a motion, which later failed, that would have prevented the council from seeing a raise until 2018. Pender and Councilman John Black voted with Sutton.

Mayor Doug Echols supported the raises, saying Rock Hill has to “keep pace” with rising costs of living. Votes like Monday’s are intended to keep the issue from coming up in an election year – to keep politics out of it, he said.

When the council approved the most recent salary hikes in October, it was “long overdue,” Sutton said. That action should sustain the council “for a number of years,” he said.

Pender agreed, saying it’s appropriate for the council to consider a pay raise for itself every two years but this year is too soon after the October raises.

Before this year, council members made $8,000 in salary with an annual $1,800 stipend for job-related expenses. The mayor made $12,542 in salary and $3,600 for expenses.

Also on Monday, the council gave unanimous initial approval to a 6 percent electric rate increase for customers. The extra money is needed, officials say, to cover the city’s rising cost of buying power.

Rock Hill customers also may see a 71-cent stormwater fee increase. Combined, the two utility rate increases would add an average $90 yearly to residential customers’ bills.

The new rates would go in effect on July 1. On Monday, Black and Sutton voted against the stormwater fee increase.

The fee increase will allow city officials to borrow nearly $6 million to begin major stormwater drainage system improvements. In recent years, residents have complained about issues of standing water in roads and yards after heavy rain.

An extra 71 cents each month will help fix the problems, said Councilwoman Ann Williamson, adding that the stormwater advisory committee worked hard “to keep the rate increase as low as we possibly could.”