Columbus City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved a 2.87-mill property tax increase for Fiscal Year 2022.
During a special-call meeting at Trotter Convention Center to set the millage and publicly discuss next year’s budget, city administration also presented two budget scenarios — one of which included 3-percent pay increases for every city employee except elected officials and the mayor’s executive assistant.
The millage for next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, is set at 54.11. It includes a 2.59-mill increase for the city’s general obligation debt as well as a .75-mill increase for urban renewal bonds — included in the operations budget — the city issued in 2018 to pay for redevelopment efforts in Burns Bottom. A .47-mill reduction in a firefighter disability and relief fund, which is set by the state, brings the balance of the mill increase to 2.87.
A mill is used to measure property taxes and is paid based on the assessed value of real property, vehicles and other personal property. The increase means a city resident will pay an additional $28.70 per $100,000 of assessed property value.
Interim Chief Operations Officer Mark Alexander Jr. told the council the increase is meant to stabilize the city’s current debt payments long-term, as the council has issued bonds at least twice that it didn’t levy appropriate millage to support. In 2020, the council approved a $6.5 million road paving bond with no millage increase to support it.
When issuing the urban renewal bonds, the council planned to raise mills by a total of 2.5 over three years — with a 1-mill hike the first year and .75-mill increases in each of the next two years. It raised the first 1.75 but never implemented the last .75, Alexander said.
“As long as you don’t sell any more debt or the mill value doesn’t go down, which I know are two very large assumptions, then the city will not have to raise millage (again) to fund its bonded debt,” Alexander said Wednesday.
The mill value this year — the amount of tax revenue 1 mill will generate — is estimated at $195,000. It’s the third straight year that value has increased.
After the meeting, Mayor Keith Gaskin told The Dispatch he was pleased to see the city administration and council present a united front for the tax increase.
“Let’s be honest, no one is ever happy about a tax increase,” Gaskin said. “I am pleased the council recognized this was a step we needed to take. I think it’s a great example of this council wanting to work with the mayor to be the best possible stewards of taxpayer dollars.”
Budget discussion, pay raises
Alexander and Chief Financial Officer Deliah Vaughn also presented two budget scenarios for the council’s consideration. With the 3-percent pay increases, the projected surplus is $127,296. Without the pay raises, it is $549,765.
The council must approve the Fiscal Year 2022 budget by Sept. 15.
The proposed raises, however, sparked discussion over pay generally and how to raise wages to increase productivity and reduce job turnover long term.
Both Alexander and Vaughn noted employees hadn’t received across-the-board raises since 2017.
Ward 1 Councilman Ethel Stewart said 3 percent would amount to less than 10 cents an hour per year for many of the city’s lowest paid employees since their last raise, and she worried that amount would not serve as much incentive.
Vice Mayor Joseph Mickens, who serves Ward 2, proposed raising the city employee minimum wage to $12 per hour, even if that meant there were no raises for anyone already making more than that.
He noted 26 firefighters, for example, currently make less than $12 per hour. In response to council questions, Vaughn confirmed the lowest paid city employee makes an hourly wage of $10.30.
“And we wonder why people are leaving,” Mickens said. “No city employee should make less than $12 an hour.”
Alexander told Mickens he “vehemently” disagreed with his suggestion, especially if the city was looking for better productivity.
“Paying more and getting the same thing is the textbook definition of less productivity,” he said.
Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones asked about how the city’s pay scale compared to peer cities in the areas, such as Starkville.
“We’re low,” Alexander said. “I’ve met with some city officials in Starkville … and they were doing an employee salary survey and didn’t even include Columbus because we were so far out of their pay distribution.”
Jones suggested looking at what it would cost to raise the city employee minimum wage to $12 an hour and give the 3-percent across-the-board raise to everyone else.
“You get what you pay for,” Jones said. “… If I’m happy at home and can pay my bills at home, I’m happy at my job.”
Alexander said he isn’t against employee pay raises but noted it needs to be done responsibly and within the city’s means.
With the city’s approved millage rate for Fiscal Year 2022, the council has only $549,000 of flexibility for pay raises unless it wants to cut into city services proposed in the budget, he said. That proposed budget includes increased expenditures for needed equipment and facility maintenance/repair — especially in the police, fire, public works and parks departments — that have been deferred for years.
“It’s got to come from somewhere,” Alexander said. “… If we give raises, what will the city be giving up?”
Ultimately, the council appointed a budget committee of Stewart, Jones and Ward 4 Councilman Pierre Beard to meet with Alexander and Vaughn to further discuss the budget between now and its final approval. The committee will meet at 1 p.m. today at City Hall.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.