During a marathon, three-and-a-half hour meeting, the council voted to give all hourly employees a 75-cent raise, effective Jan. 1; approved a request by Columbus Light and Water to issue $8.7 million in bonds; and took no action on the demolition of Oak Manor apartments.
Premium pay or a raise?
Ward 4 Councilman Pierre Beard came to the council with a proposal to give workers premium pay from federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars, as well as giving hourly city workers a 75-cent-per-hour raise, effective Jan. 1.
Beard had brought up the idea of premium pay during the city budget process in September, when up to $1.3 million was set aside for that purpose. He revisited the idea Tuesday night, but, rather than the original $5,000 one-time payment he recommended then, he instead suggested between $1,000 and $4,000, based on the employee’s years with the city.
City Attorney Jeff Turnage balked at the idea.
“I agree it is legal to give premium pay, so that part’s pretty easy,” Turnage said. “Where it gets fuzzier is that the funds come from the federal government to the state government, and then they come to us through the state. We want to comply with state law, and state law says you can’t give retroactive pay. I would be scared you would be stepping on the state constitution.”
Turnage said that Rankin County set theirs up as incentive pay for future work during the pandemic, rather than premium pay for work already done. Another problem is state limits on the dollar amount individual workers can receive.
“If the pay you give puts someone’s salary at more than 150 percent of the average salary in Mississippi, you can’t do it without special findings,” Turnage said. “I’m nervous about across-the-board premium pay.”
Ward 3 Councilman Rusty Greene made a motion to table that proposal until more of the legal questions could be answered, with a second from Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacqueline DiCicco. The motion passed 4-1, with Ward 1 Councilwoman Ethel Taylor Stewart, Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens, Greene and DiCicco voting yes and Beard voting no. Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones recused himself, due to a family member working for the city.
“Mr. Turnage been up here with me for four terms,” Mickens said. “The only thing I care about is Mr. Turnage keeping me out of jail. I trust him, and as much as I want to help the employees, I got to listen to the attorney on this one.”
Once the premium pay was tabled, Beard came right back with a proposal for a 75-cent pay raise.
“Seventy-five cents will get people making $10.30 just over $11 an hour,” he said. “We have an employee in Parks and Rec only making $10, so that will get her up to $10.75. When we started talking about raises, we were talking about getting them up to $12 an hour and I would like to come up with a plan to do that next year.”
According to Beard’s figures, roughly 260 workers would be affected at a base cost of $382,000 per year. That figure does not include costs for fringe benefits. Beard suggested that the money be taken out of the general fund, and if the general fund wasn’t sufficient to pull money from the city’s insurance fund surplus.
That fund contains about $1.3 million currently, he said.
Human Resources Director Pat Mitchell said the city must keep at least $770,000 in that fund for claims.
The true cost of the raise will have to be determined, Mitchell said.
“You have to factor in everybody’s hourly rate,” she said. “There will be fringe (benefits) on there. The city would pay a little more for worker’s compensation, and a little more for PERS. It’s going to trickle down. But I can’t give you a figure without being able to calculate everybody’s 75 cents on their pay rate.”
A surplus of $163,000 is projected in this year’s budget. That budget, approved in September, excluded planned expenditures on equipment and facility maintenance across nearly all departments.
Greene argued for waiting, both to explore the issue of possible premium pay with American Rescue Plan Act money and to “come up with a way to make this sustainable.”
“I just hate to feel like we’re doing this spur of the moment,” he said, and suggested the council hold a work session to thrash out the details.
Beard didn’t want to wait and made a motion to proceed with the raise, seconded by Mickens. DiCicco made a substitute motion, seconded by Greene, to wait until better numbers were available. Her motion failed 3-2, with Stewart, Mickens and Beard voting no and Greene and DiCicco voting yes. Jones had again recused himself.
“We need the actual numbers from (Mitchell),” DiCicco argued.
“We have until January,” Beard said.
Greene suggested doing more research on using American Rescue Act Plan funding for premium pay to give workers a boost this year, and then coming back to the pay raise suggesting if the ARPA money didn’t pan out, but Beard said that wasn’t enough.
“We’ve got people who worked here for 25 years and still make $10.30,” Beard said. “I’m asking for three quarters.”
Beard’s motion passed 3-2, with Stewart, Mickens and Beard voting yes and Greene and DiCicco voting no. Mitchell will return at next month’s council meeting with figures on the actual cost of the raise.
CLW Board Attorney Jeff Smith and bond attorney Tray Hairston of Butler Snow asked the council to approve an intent resolution to issue $8.7 million in bonds for four major projects.
Smith said the $3.6 million would go to upgrading the utility’s fiber optics; $3.6 million to build a new warehouse for the electric department, replacing a structure built in the 1960s; $675,000 for improvements, including roofing and structural work, at the building across from its office that the utility bought; and $400,000 for an outage reporting system that would allow members of the public to see where current outages are.
The bond payments would be made with a 1.4 percent rate increase that was passed earlier this year and went into effect in October, Smith said. He estimated the average customer would see a $3 increase monthly.
“(The bonds) do not affect the city’s general obligation capacity,” Hairston said. “It has no bearing on the city’s borrowing capacity.”
The council has to approve the bond because the city must issue debt on the utility’s behalf.
Jones made the motion, seconded by Stewart. It passed unanimously.
The city could vote to issue the bonds as early as next month.
Oak Manor stalemate
After a third meeting, the city order to demolish Oak Manor apartments still stands. In October the city voted to tear down the complex, which sits just south of Mississippi University for Women on 11th Street South. California-based owner Robert Merchant was given two weeks to come up with a plan to renovate the site, but his plan left the council cold.
Merchant tried again Tuesday night, this time submitting a letter offering to spend $1.5 million over four to six months to rehabilitate the blighted complex. He said he would “do anything that needs to be done,” from fixing roofs to installing water heaters.
Steve McEwan, Merchant’s lawyer, said he drove past the apartment complex and took a look.
“It was the first time I had driven by in the daytime,” he said. “The grounds looked well-kept, there were people walking around, there were a lot of folks there doing well.”
“I think you missed the right apartments,” Mayor Keith Gaskin said.
“He is ready to get started,” McEwan said. “He will get started within the next couple of weeks, after you give him permission.”
The council was skeptical that Merchant could bring the complex back, and Greene asked for some way to guarantee that the work would be done.
“I’m just worried we’re going to be here in six months and have some work done and be right here again,” he said.
Turnage suggested a performance bond. He also suggested doing one building at a time, sticking to a specific schedule.
McEwan said he would talk to Merchant privately and see if he was interested.
“I don’t want to talk to him about that in front of all of y’all,” McEwan said.
“At this point there’s no change,” Stewart told McEwan. “I can write a letter and put whatever I want in a letter. He needs to prove to the council that he intends to do improvements on that complex.”
The council took no action, meaning the original demolition order stands.