Giving city employees raises is “not as easy as just adding 75 cents to a check,” Mayor Keith Gaskin said during a Wednesday press conference.
He continued to insist that he favored raises a majority of the city council is pushing for this year, but he wants to make sure the city is in a financial position to sustain them once the commitment is made.
Tuesday night Columbus City Council discussed funding an oft-discussed 75-cent-per-hour raise for all city employees with about $556,000 the city got in federal CARES Act funding that would help cover them for this fiscal year. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act was a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill passed by the Trump Administration in March 2020.
Wednesday morning, Gaskin doubled down on his position that the time is not right for the raises, both because of the unsettled city finances and the fact that the CARES Act is one-time money.
The city has been without a full-time chief financial officer since late September, though city officials are hoping to have a new one in place next month. Gaskin also cited a $1.5 million error found in the budget preparation process that unexpectedly tightened the city’s purse strings this fiscal year.
“We are dedicated to increasing the pay across the city,” Gaskin said. “At the beginning of this fiscal year we found a mistake in our budgeting, and to me that is very cautioning. It’s no secret about the financial issues the city has faced for years. It’s not that we don’t want to do this.”
The city also has other needs beyond raises, such as equipment purchases and repairs and deferred maintenance on city buildings, he said.
“It’s just prudent that we not rush into any decisions,” he said. “…There are just so many unknowns at this point.”
Gaskin acknowledged the disconnect between he and some council members over whether to prioritize raises before nailing down a clear financial picture for the city. He said he understands why those council members feel the way they do.
“I believe they wholeheartedly feel that a raise is long overdue, and I agree with that,” he said. “Where we differ is how we get to that point. It is only fair to our employees that we do it in a way that we can sustain it, and right now we don’t know that we can. Other communities have done this, but they were probably in a better financial situation than we are.”
The most pressing issue is finding people for the CFO and chief operations officer positions, he said.
“It’s critical we get those positions right, but once we do we can come back with some solid information on ways to move forward with these raises,” he said. “We wholeheartedly want to do this. (The council and I) don’t always agree, but we are all trying to get to the right place.”
Moving forward with raises without a full staff in City Hall and an understanding of the financial situation could be “quite a burden on the city,” Gaskin said.
Ward 1 Councilwoman Ethel Taylor Stewart said she still wants answers about city finances.
“Who says the books aren’t in order?” she said. “Nobody can give us a definite answer on why we can’t give the raises. They say they aren’t sure what they have, but they’ve been in office for six months. It’s not like they came in one month ago and now it’s two months in and we’re asking about raises.”
She said she isn’t sure she favors waiting for raises until a CFO is hired.
“When that person comes in, how long will it take them to get the books in order?” she said.
Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens said he opposes the mayor’s Tuesday night suggestion to form a separate committee to study raises, but he is fine waiting for a CFO to be hired.
“I’m tired of committees,” he said. “A committee just kicks it down the road. You can’t just tell me you want raises, you need to show me you want them. … I don’t see a problem with getting a COO and CFO in place. … It would make good sense to have them in place first. I can’t argue with that.”
Ward 4 Councilman Pierre Beard is also fine with getting a CFO in place before proceeding with raises, but he questioned whether City Hall wanted to give raises in the first place.
“We have interims in place who are doing (the CFO and COO jobs),” he said. “We do have representation in those offices. I don’t feel as though (Gaskin) wants to do it. … We can do this with what we have, it just doesn’t seem like (the administration) wants to do it.”
Ward 3 Councilman Rusty Greene questioned how the city could make any raises sustainable.
“We all want raises,” he said. “I voted for giving a raise in the original budget, but then we had the budgeting error and had to back off. We could do it this year, but then how do we do it next year? We need to have a plan.”
Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacqueline DiCicco declined to comment, and Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones did not return a phone call seeking comment by press time.