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HOT SPRINGS -- The Hot Springs Board of Directors tasked city administrators last month with rewarding the roughly 600 city employees who have stayed at the ready during the coronavirus pandemic.

They have kept the buses running on time, continued residential and commercial sanitation services, maintained water and sewer service, and provided police and fire protection under adverse circumstances.

But sustaining those basic services hasn't been without its challenges. The pandemic temporarily closed the city's utility billing service office in late July and early August when two employees there tested positive for the virus.

The office's other employees worked from home until on-site operations resumed about a week later.

In September, utility billing services and the city finance department moved from the Bill Edwards Center on Airport Road to 324 Malvern Ave., a move that had been planned before the pandemic. Services continued without interruption, despite the relocation.

The board said the dedication of city employees, along with the city's better-than-expected financial position, merited a reward. It proposed a 2% bonus but eventually opted for a $1,200 end-of-the-year bonus for full-time employees and a $600 bonus for part-time workers.

A resolution the board will consider at its Tuesday night business meeting would amend the 2020 budget to allow for the bonus payments.

"We looked at a 2% equivalent," City Manager Bill Burrough told the board. "But hearing the board's desire to make sure that we had an even spread of that bonus amount for all employees, mentioning they'd like to see the employees be able to take home about $1,000. With that $1,200, the majority of our employees will fall within that tax bracket that will let them take home $1,000."

According to information provided to the board, the payments would be appropriated from nine city funds and cost more than $740,000. The general fund would bear $444,500 of the cost. The bonuses would be added to payroll checks for the pay period ending Nov. 27.

The 2021 budget that Burrough presented last month included a 2% cost-of-living adjustment for city employees, but the board directed Burrough to increase it to 3.5%.

The city said last month that it projected the general fund will finish the year with an $11.4 million balance, almost $7 million more than the reserve requirement of 16.5% of annual expenses. The overage included the $2 million surplus forecast for 2020, a more than $2.6 million difference from the $661,000 deficit the city budgeted for.

This year's projected general fund surplus is part of almost $7 million in surpluses the city has reaped since 2016, despite regularly budgeting for annual deficits. The city hasn't concluded a budget cycle with a deficit since 2015.

The 2021 general fund budget presented last month included a $1.18 million surplus based on a 2% increase in projected revenue from the city's 1% sales tax, which is forecast to generate more than $15 million next year. It's on pace to collect more than $14.8 million in the current year.

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