Columbus City Council voted 3-2 on Tuesday to earmark $1.3 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for one-time employee stipends but will not spend that money until the city has clear legal guidance on who exactly can receive it.
Ward 4 Councilman Pierre Beard proposed putting aside that amount — which is roughly 23 percent of the $5.7 million in ARPA funds the city will receive by the end of next year — with hopes of giving $5,000 stipends to all 260 city employees.
Any of the earmarked money not ultimately spent on the stipends, or premium pay, would be freed up to use for other ARPA-compliant purposes, Beard said. Other cities and counties in the state, he added, have already approved premium pay stipends for employees ranging from $1,500 to $5,000.
“However much we’re going to give if we’re going to give it, that’s up to y’all,” Beard told fellow council members. “Five-thousand (dollars) sounds good to me.”
Earlier in the meeting, Mayor Keith Gaskin and City Attorney Jeff Turnage tried to preempt a vote on premium pay, discussion for which was included on the council’s policy agenda. Both asked the council to table it.
Gaskin said he is “very serious” about finding ways to compensate employees with part of the federal funding. He learned this week that Rankin County, for example, is offering premium pay stipends to all of its employees. However, with the city’s plan to hire consultants to advise on how to properly spend ARPA funds, he felt input from the consultants and further legal counsel on the stipends is needed.
“I know this is a difficult question for everyone,” Gaskin said. “It’s an emotional one. But I think it’s imperative as elected officials and leaders of the community that we’re doing our due diligence and making sure we are doing this the right way that benefits everybody.”
ARPA funds can be used in four broad categories, Turnage said, including tourism, water/sewer/broadband, assistance to businesses and families disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and premium pay for employees. It aims to provide local relief to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tunage said he has been reviewing documents related to ARPA funds, and it is unclear to him if premium pay stipends can be paid to all employees or select workers dubbed “essential.” In any case, he said it is clear that some stipends for qualifying employees can be retroactive to March 2020, while others can be “prospective pay.”
“There are some statements in there that give me some comfort (that) you can do it, and there are some statements in there that scare me that you can’t do it across the board,” he said. “… It’s quite confusing to me. … I would say there should be no real hurry to do it because you can still do it the next time you meet or the next time when you finally have counsel.”
Turnage also advised the council, once it was prepared to pay out stipends, to approve a resolution with “clear findings” that the ARPA money was being spent in compliance with federal guidelines.
“We need to be darn sure we do it right,” he said “… I’m not trying to undermine the idea. I just think we have plenty of time and we should not rush into this and make a mistake in the process.”
When Beard spoke later in the meeting, he pointed to a $1.5 million clerical error in the Fiscal Year 2022 budget planning process that kept the city from funding employee raises. Initially, the city thought it would have a $550,000 surplus to use for merit and tenure raises for employees.
After the error was discovered, the trimmed down budget that was approved cut out the raises, among other planned expenditures.
By earmarking ARPA funds for premium pay, he said, that would still allow the consultant to advise on the remaining $4.4 million — possibly more if stipends cost less than the earmarked $1.3 million.
“We weren’t able to give any of our employees any raises,” Beard said Tuesday “… We do have money that is available to give to our employees whether or not we know who can get it or who we want to give it to. You have some cities and counties where everybody is getting it, and you have some (where) a select few are getting. But one thing we know is what? They can get it.”
After Beard’s motion, seconded by Ward 1 Councilwoman Ethel Stewart, Ward 3 Councilman Rusty Greene offered a substitute motion to table the matter. His received a second from Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacqueline DiCicco.
At that point, Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens appealed to Turnage, asking if there was any real difference between Beard’s and Greene’s motions.
“Since you’re not moving to pay it, and just earmarking it, I see no need to table it,” Turnage replied.
Greene’s substitute motion failed, followed by the split vote approving Beard’s motion — Stewart and Mickens voted with Beard.
Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones recused himself from premium pay discussion and the vote, since his sister is employed at City Hall.
Fire apparatus, Historic Preservation appointment
Another assumed casualty of the budgeting error was $180,000 in new self-contained breathing apparatus units for the fire department.
On Tuesday, Mickens moved to dedicate the city’s projected surplus of $163,878 to fund those, and the council unanimously agreed.
Interim Chief Operations Officer Mark Alexander said the fire department budget includes $20,000 for the equipment, so the city would need to transfer roughly $160,000 more to the department to buy the equipment.
In other business, the council reappointed Princess Theater owner Bart Lawrence to a four-year term on the Historic Preservation Board. Three others — Demtrius Bennett, Frances Glenn and Bob Raymond — also applied for the post, but Raymond withdrew his name on Tuesday before the vote.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.