As Boones Mill grapples with a shrinking budget, council members have zeroed in on the mayor’s salary as a place to cut.
Councilman Mike Smith raised the idea during a Tuesday work session. Though Smith said the suggestion was not personal, it put Mayor Ben Flora on the defensive. Flora said Thursday he reacted emotionally, as the proposed salary cut was “out of the blue” and comes at a difficult time for him financially.
The proposed 2019-20 budget comes in more than 10% below the current year. Smith said cuts need to be made, and after calling around to other towns, Flora’s $600 monthly salary seemed a prime candidate.
Mayors in three other small towns in the Roanoke region, all of which have populations greater than that of Boones Mill, have lower salaries than Flora.
In Buchanan, the mayor makes $100 a month. In Troutville, it’s $130 a month. Fincastle’s mayor is not paid.
Given Boones Mill’s financial situation, Smith said, he felt a $600 monthly salary was inappropriate for a mayor of a town of fewer than 300 people.
“We’ve got to run this like a business,” Smith said. “Any type of business I know of that goes down in profits or that go down like us in budgets, they’ve got to make cuts.”
Flora said he found it interesting that Smith offered up only this solution, and asked whether he saw any other areas of the budget in need of a trim, but the council member said he did not.
“A way to run this town like a business, that’s all you got?” Flora said.
Smith did, however, mention that the town had recently incurred unnecessary legal expenses. The comment prompted heated discussion about an ongoing battle related to the height of hedges at a property owned by Flora’s partner.
Town Manager B.T. Fitzpatrick said in an interview that the town had brought in legal counsel to draft a letter to the property owner indicating she must trim the hedges by a certain date or the town will bring in a crew to do so.
Council member Jason Masching shifted the conversation back to Flora’s salary, asking the mayor how he should explain the expense to constituents.
Flora said he did not care what the council decided and would not justify his salary.
“I’m tired of being put on the spot about everything all the time and being targeted,” he said.
Council members said the $600 monthly salary was justified when Boones Mill was without a town manager and Flora took on more responsibility and when Flora helped out with the water and sewer system. But circumstances have changed, they said.
Jean Rucker, town clerk and treasurer, said Wednesday the mayor’s salary was bumped up from $300 to $400 a month in the fall of 2012 and again to $600 a month in July 2014.
She said meeting minutes indicate that when council made the most recent adjustment, it also voted to give the mayor a $2,000 “gratuity” for his assistance with the town’s water and sewer system.
Flora acknowledged that today he probably does not do $600 worth of work for the town each month. He also said he’s stepped back a bit, feeling as if council members do not want his leadership.
“Boy this is making me want to step right up again, isn’t it?” Flora said. “Show you all how much I love this town. I have worked my tail off for this town.”
Ultimately, council members voted to reduce the mayor’s salary to $325 a month beginning in July, with the start of the next fiscal year. They also voted to reduce their own pay from $50 to $35 a meeting. The council typically meets twice a month.
The adjustments will be reflected in the 2019-20 budget, which the council has yet to adopt.
In an interview after the meeting, Flora said the reduction to his salary was not unreasonable, but he felt it was more than an effort to trim the budget.
“I can’t help but wonder,” he said.
Smith said in an interview Thursday that the hedge issue, about which he’s fielded numerous citizen complaints, was not a factor in his decision to bring up Flora’s salary.
“That had nothing to do with it whatsoever,” Smith said. “This salary has been on my mind for quite a while.”
Smith said he was driven by a desire to serve his constituents and a feeling that the town needs to “really tighten our belt up.”
The council member said he respected Flora for stepping up when the town was without a manager and needed a leader. But Smith said he feels the mayor has scaled back his involvement recently.
Flora said council members have given him conflicting messages about what level of leadership they expect from him.
The mayor said he recognizes they are all public servants who are not in this work for the money — a point made by council members during the salary discussion.