KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Knoxville mayor told city councilmembers employee salaries are "at a breaking point" as she pitched a 6% across-the-board wage increase for city workers Thursday night.
A city-funded study said increasing salaries would cost the city $8.9 million, a price tag that would almost certainly require the city to raise property taxes for the first time in more than a decade, said former longtime city official Bill Lyons.
"I wouldn’t be surprised if now or soon there will be a significant property tax necessary to pay for the salary or wages the study says are required," Lyon said.
He said the previous mayors had all supported a property tax increase of about 5-10% during their terms.
Kincannon has not said how she proposes to pay for the salary increases, but a city spokesperson said "all options are on the table." Kincannon said she wanted the council to fully fund the salary increase all at once, not piecemeal over several years.
She also asked to institute a $15 minimum wage for city employees.
"We need their compensation to reflect how valuable they are to the community," she said of the city's around 1,500 employees.
Dozens of police officers and firefighters attended Thursday night's city council workshop presenting the study.
"I've never seen us this shorthanded," said Jason Booker, a KPD Investigator. "We need help to retain quality employees, to attract quality employees, we need to address compensation."
He said the department is down 42 sworn officers, with more possible retirements looming. Other police representatives, however, said the 6 percent proposal isn't enough to make the department competitive for recruiting.
"Any extra compensation is appreciated," said Keith Lyons, the head of the Fraternal Order of Police. "Even on the county side, they’re asking for 15 to 18 percent. The city needs to do the same."
Since the last property tax increase in 2014, Lyon said the city's salaries have stagnated and the cost of services has increased.
"Affordable housing, dealing with homelessness — there are a lot of challenges that cities take on now that they’re expected to pay for," he said. "If the evidence is the tax is necessary, I personally think it’s perfectly justified."
Knoxville's current property tax rate, city and county combined, is $4.58 per $100 assessed value — slightly higher than Nashville, Bristol and Chattanooga's rates.
Kincannon's office said the mayor planned to unveil her full budget proposal — including how she planned to pay for the raises — at an April budget announcement.