Since the city’s 2022 budget meeting in August, city employee pay raises have been discussed by the Columbus City Council.
One version of the 2022 budget included pay raises, but a much-leaner version of the budget was ultimately approved after a $1.5 million clerical error was discovered.
Multiple times since the final 2022 budget was approved, pay raises have been discussed.
The question isn’t so much whether city employees should get a pay raise, but rather, when those raises should be implemented and how they will be funded.
Mayor Keith Gaskin said during Tuesday’s council meeting that he didn’t think the city had a clear enough picture of city finances to make a decision now, citing the surprise shortfall discovered late in the budget process, former CFO Milton Rawle’s embezzlement and the fact that the city’s books still don’t balance due to issues with reconciliation.
“I don’t think it’s fair to keep dangling possible raises out there when we do not know what our financial situation is,” he said.
Some council members insist those raises must be implemented and the sooner the better.
“Let me make this clear,” Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens said during Tuesday’s council meeting. “We are going forward with these raises. We can give you a little bit more time. But the raises are going forward.”
To move forward at this time would be grossly irresponsible, though.
Imagine going to the bank and asking for a mortgage loan. One of the first things the banker would want to know is your income and how much money you had saved for a down payment.
If your answer is, “I don’t really know,” your odds of getting that loan go to zero. Any reasonable person would understand that decision.
The city is in that situation now: It simply doesn’t have an accurate view of its current balances and doesn’t know how it will pay for raises annually.
In his argument in favor of waiting, Gaskin correctly noted the city simply doesn’t have a clear picture of its finances. According to prior reports, certain accounts haven’t been reconciled or balanced.
More importantly, no plan on how to fund the raises in future budget years has been offered. The current year budget is lean, and there’s little reason to believe next year will be different.
In order to fund a pay raise — which conservatively will cost more than $400,000 per year — the city will need to have more income or less expenses.
We haven’t heard any council members say what they intend to cut in order to pay for these proposed raises.
Regardless of when the raise happens, the council — and the public — needs a good idea of how much the proposed raise will cost the city. In explaining why we don’t have that number yet, City Human Resources Director Pat Mitchell has said it would be impossible to calculate the true cost of the suggested 75-cent per hour raise because of other costs associated with the raise, primarily overtime and benefits.
That’s an odd claim to make. Cities — and businesses — predict payroll and benefits every year when they make their budgets so the claim that the full cost of the raises can’t be quantified is puzzling.
Finally, we will point out this debate comes at a time when the city is still in the process of hiring a Chief Financial Officer, a qualified professional who will manage the city’s finances.
At the very least, it appears prudent that the council wait until that person is in place before considering an unbudgeted pay raise.
In truth, it may require even more patience than that. Until we have a full picture of the city’s finances, rushing ahead with pay raises without knowing its impact on the budget is not good policy.
The council members pushing for the raise are right when they insist that the cost of the raises can be calculated. But they are wrong on the bigger, more important issue.
The mayor’s camp is wrong in one detail, but right in its ultimate conclusion.
There will come a day when it is good policy to raise pay for city employees.
Today is not that day.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.