Department heads within the city of Columbus pushed back over a 75-cent-per-hour raise given to hourly employees last month during a Friday morning work session at City Hall with the mayor and council.
Mayor Keith Gaskin and Interim Chief Operations Officer Mark Alexander Jr. also voiced concerns, given the city’s still-unclear financial position, whether the raises could be sustained or should be given at all.
It was the first pre-meeting work session for the mayor and council. Only Ward 3 Councilman Rusty Greene and Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacqueline DiCicco attended, although there was a large contingent of department heads and other officials present.
On Nov. 16 the council voted 3-2 to give all hourly employees a 75-cent-per-hour raise, despite there being no clear idea what it would cost. The move was the brainchild of Ward 4 Councilman Pierre Beard, who said that the money to pay for it — at least in this fiscal year — could come from the general fund, with the balance taken out of the insurance surplus fund if needed. Beard at the time estimated a $382,000 cost, although he said that did not include fringe benefits. Ward 1 Councilwoman Ethel Taylor Stewart and Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens both joined Beard, while Greene and DiCicco dissented. Ward 5’s Stephen Jones recused himself.
Friday afternoon, Building Official Kenny Wiegel protested on behalf of the city’s department heads.
“We weren’t aware that money was in the budget to fund raises,” Wiegel said. “We feel like if there is, the 12 of us should be included in that. With all due respect, we don’t think this is fair.”
Fire Chief Martin Andrews expanded on that theme, saying that in his department it was already hard to get people to take promotions because there wasn’t enough of a financial incentive. The department is currently short four captains and several engineers.
“They would rather make overtime (than be promoted),” he said.
Wiegel said, in some cases, the raises put hourly employees at or near the pay rate of their salaried supervisors.
“I think the frustrations come in because the council voted without input by the department heads,” Gaskin said.
He went on to say that the raises are needed to put city employees on a competitive footing with those in surrounding communities, but he is “very concerned” by the city’s current financial footing.
An unclear financial picture
According to figures Alexander provided, the cost of the raises is far higher than what Beard estimated. Giving raises to just the employees approved last month, including benefits, would cost the city $631,896 annually, or $52,658 per month. With the department heads included, that cost rises to $671,620 annually, or $55,968 per month.
“This money is not in the budget,” he said.
The problems run deeper than that, Alexander said. The city’s records have not been properly reconciled to the bank accounts for “an undetermined period of time,” which means the city books may not accurately reflect actual expenditures and revenues.
That lack of reconciliation goes back at least to the tenure of former Chief Financial Officer Milton Rawle, Alexander said. Rawle was sentenced earlier this year to 20 years in prison for a years-long embezzlement scheme that netted him nearly $300,000 in taxpayer dollars.
Alexander recommended staffing up the city’s accounting positions, reconciling the books — which means going back to the last time they were reconciled and working forward to the present day — and then re-evaluating the raises.
“We need to look at this from a strategic point of view,” he said, noting raises should be built to aid in retention and efficiency within city departments and then phased in over a period of years.
“We need a clear picture before we can make good decisions,” he said.
The current fiscal year is only two months old, he said.
“We need to run some of the year out and look and see” where expenditures and revenues are, he said.
“I think you’re preaching to the choir,” Greene said. “We’re all on the same page. I’m against making quick decisions without a plan and without looking at the numbers. Somehow we have to figure out a way to get everybody in the same room so we can hash this out.”
Beard told The Dispatch on Saturday that he was not aware the department heads had an objection, and he supported giving them raises as well.
“They had not said anything to me about it,” he said. “I have no problem adding 12 employees to the 75-cent raises.”
He said that he still stood by his recommendation for the raises, even though the cost was higher than presented last month.
“We as council members need to find ways to bring in more revenue to the city,” he said. “We are responsible for bringing in different revenue streams, such as bringing in more business into the city limits. The city has been losing population for years, and we need to find ways to bring people back into the city limits.”
The money in the insurance fund is more than enough to support the additional cost, he said.
“There is still an ample amount of funds, and I don’t see any reason not to give those raises, and not to include the department heads,” he said.
The city has roughly $1 million in its insurance fund, money that can be used for raises. However, Human Resources Director Pat Mitchell previously advised the board against doing that because the money is normally kept back to pay for employee medical claims. She said with COVID-19, the city needs a healthy balance to cover large claims.
No action was taken since Friday’s meeting was a non-voting work session. The council’s next meeting is Tuesday at 5 p.m.