Alma City Council members unanimously approved up to $1,500 a month in reimbursements for the new city attorney during their regular meeting Thursday night.
Against the wishes of Mayor Keith Greene, Alma’s council members approved an amendment to the city’s 2017 budget that allowed newly elected City Attorney Rinda Baker to be reimbursed up to $18,000 a year for costs related to her job.
Baker must submit items for reimbursement to the council each month for approval up to $1,500. The amount approved for reimbursement was based on a cost estimate provided by Baker, who will be working out of her personal office, for items such as rent, utilities, car allowance, postage and supplies.
Alderman John Ware proposed the amendment, along with two other amendments reducing items of anticipated revenue.
Before the budget was approved as amended, Greene read a statement of his opposition to the reimbursement allotment, which he referred to as a “salary increase.”
“As a taxpayer and citizen of this city, I am insulted by this request,” Greene said. “I would be disappointed by approval of this demand by elected city officials.”
At a recent council study session, Greene presented information he had gathered from a study conducted by the Arkansas Municipal League regarding compensation for city attorneys at cities approximately the size of Alma.
According to the information the mayor provided, those attorneys make between $24,000 and $36,000 a year, with an average of about $30,000.
Alderman Jerry Martin responded to Greene’s statement, calling it “dishonest.”
“In your statement, you keep referring to this as a pay increase for our city attorney, which it is not,” Martin said. “It’s a reimbursement for things that were covered for the previous attorney.”
When asked for clarification after the meeting, Martin pointed out that former city attorney Chuck Baker had been provided office space at the municipal complex, utilities, supplies and sometimes extra help.
For needs not covered by the city, Chuck Baker, as an employee of Crawford County Prosecutor Marc McCune, had outside resources, Martin said.
“These are all things our new attorney is not being provided,” Martin said.
Martin added that the Alma city attorney has duties that many other city attorneys do not, particularly the role as prosecutor.
Alma holds court once a week, while most other cities only hold court once a month if at all, Martin said. In some cities such as Van Buren, court cases are handled by the county prosecutor rather than the city attorney, he said.
Martin also challenged Greene’s claims about pay for other city attorneys. He said Greene’s information was incomplete and inaccurate.
“It showed salaries, but it didn’t show those city attorneys were provided things like insurance and car allowances, and some were provided extra money for court,” Martin said. “It didn’t show the complete compensation for those attorneys.”
Information provided to council members by Chuck Baker about compensation for city attorneys from Clarksville, Greenwood, Wynn, Farmington, Mena and White Hall shows that salaries plus benefits range from $43,386 to $54,322.44.
Only Berryville had a lower compensation of $28,700. Berryville holds court once a month and the attorney estimated that he only spends about eight hours per month on city attorney duties, according to Chuck Baker’s information.
Rinda Baker’s salary and retirement as city attorney and city prosecutor is $48,000 a year for the part-time position. No other benefits are included.
In her cost estimate, Rinda Baker estimated working 10 to 15 hours per week in her position, though she has been working up to 30 hours per week since she took up her duties at the beginning of the month, she said.
Martin told Greene that council members had considered his information along with information provided by Chuck Baker, Rinda Baker and their own research in making their decision regarding the request for reimbursement.
Greene was provided the complete information from Chuck Baker in the study sessions, but was uninterested, Martin said.
“Every time it was brought up, he tried to keep it from being discussed. He didn’t want it on the budget,” Martin said.
Greene in his statement also said that Chuck Baker had recommended the city hire a deputy attorney to take on part of the workload of the city attorney.
“That referral by the previous city attorney to hire in a deputy attorney indicated to me that the new city attorney was not capable of doing the same job as her predecessor,” Greene said.
Rinda Baker called the mayor’s suggestion that she was not able to do the job she was elected for untrue.
“I’ve spent at least 10 years working on and off as Chuck’s deputy before I became a city council member,” Rinda Baker said. “I know what needs to be done.”
After the meeting, Greene said part of his concern was the possible need for the city to take on the cost for a deputy attorney in addition to the reimbursement allotment.
Rinda Baker said there was no need for Greene’s concern regarding a deputy attorney.
“I don’t have any intention to bring in a deputy,” Rinda Baker said. “If I did, I would pay for that from what I’m already paid. I would contract with that person - they wouldn’t be an employee of the city.”
At the end of his statement, Greene threatened to provide the information on the reimbursement allotment to local news media if it was approved by the city council.
Martin said he had no problem with the mayor publicizing the action, but that the mayor should provide accurate information.
“It was with a lot of consideration that the city council ... voted to give the city attorney the reimbursement,” Martin said.
Greene responded that in his eyes his information was accurate.
Council members only approved the allotment for one year. The reimbursement will be reevaluated before it is included in the city’s 2018 budget, Martin said.