During its Tuesday meeting, the Columbus City Council approved unbudgeted pay raises for the city’s hourly employees by a 3-2 vote.
The proposal was made by Ward 4 Councilman Pierre Beard after his earlier proposal to provide pay supplements with the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funds was tabled in order to give city attorney Jeff Turnage time to investigate the legal implications of such an action.
We do not find fault with the council’s desire to raise employee pay. But we do have concerns about the motion passed Tuesday, which Ward 3 councilman Rusty Greene called a “spur of the moment” decision.
We agree with Greene’s assessment. Act in haste, repent at leisure, as the saying goes.
It’s no secret this administration and council has wanted to raise pay for its employees. In fact, employee raises were part of the city’s preliminary budget but were taken out of the final budget when a $1.5 million miscalculation was discovered two days before the budget deadline. Those employee raises, along with equipment upgrades for the city’s police and fire departments and repairs to city facilities, were eliminated in the final budget.
Now, two months after the budget was approved, council has voted to permanently raise employee pay without the answers to some crucial questions, including how much the raises will cost and how the raises will be funded long-term.
Beard calculated the cost of the 75-cent raise for hourly employees at $382,000. That figure alone would blow through the $163,000 budgeted surplus in the current fiscal year. Unfortunately, Beard’s number represents only part of the true cost of the raise. Human Resources Director Pat Mitchell pointed out that Beard’s projections didn’t include the cost of benefits, such as health insurance. Mitchell said the added costs of benefits would need to be calculated on an employee-by-employee basis to determine the real cost of the pay raise.
Then there is the matter of funding the raise. Beard suggested taking money from the city’s general fund and/or insurance fund, which currently stands at $1.3 million. Mitchell said that the city is required to hold $770,000 in that account.
Plundering cash reserves to fund ongoing expenses such as raises is generally not a good idea.
Without a bump in revenue to the city or significant expenditure cuts elsewhere, these raises aren’t sustainable.
But until we know exactly how much the raises would cost, it’s difficult to say how close to the bone those unbudgeted pay raises will cut. Ten months remain in the budget year and we are concerned that this proposal may put the city in a vulnerable position so early into the fiscal year.
Tuesday night, there was also a lack of discussion of priorities. Are the employee raises more important than providing the police and fire department the equipment they need to keep our community safe? Remember, a combined $405,000 for police and fire equipment was also taken out of the final FY2022 budget. Presumably, the need for that equipment — as well as the facility upgrades that were also cut from this year’s budget — will remain next year.
An argument can be made that the equipment is the more pressing need. It’s at least worth debating, isn’t it?
The city council was right to table the idea of using ARPA money for supplemental pay Tuesday because more information was needed.
The same logic should have applied to the pay raises passed by the council.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.