As Columbus mayor Keith Gaskin and city council begin work on putting together the 2023 budget, we are reminded of a line from the movie, “All About Eve.”
“Fasten your seatbelts,” Bette Davis cooed. “It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
During a work session Thursday, Columbus CFO James Brigham presented a plan for a 4-percent across-the-board pay raise for city employees funded by a 1.21 mill tax increase. Roughly 1 mill would go to providing raises, with the balance dedicated to debt service.
Last year, a planned 3 percent across-the-board pay raise was deleted from the final budget because of a clerical error that showed a $1.5 million shortfall.
That the city is considering a millage increase is neither surprising or unjustified. But there is a threshold on such an increase and considering the current pay situation, we are doubtful that the city can remedy its pay situation even with the proposed increase.
We say this based on the discussion held during the work session.
While Brigham was presenting his across-the-board pay raise, Ward 5 councilman Stephen Jones said he’d like to see the city take care of its lowest paid employees, by bringing their pay up to $12.50.
Gaskin said he would also like to see the city establish a minimum wage of $12.50.
Brigham told The Dispatch there are currently 89 employees who make less than $12,50 per hour, although he didn’t say how much less than $12.50 those employees make. He said he would have to do some modeling to determine how much it would cost to raise all employees to the $12.50 per hour rate.
One thing should be obvious: The city can have the 4 percent across-the-board pay raise or a minimum wage of $12.50 per hour. It probably can’t have both.
There is yet another issue the city will have to grapple with: pay raises for its police officers.
In July, the mayor and council forced police chief Fred Shelton into retirement, primarily because of low morale in the department that has led to serious understaffing.
Shelton said the primary cause of the low morale was low pay. Gaskin disagreed, saying pay was not the biggest issue, based on a survey of police officers.
It’s hard to believe, however, that pay has no role in what ails the department.
As one police officer told The Dispatch in June, “If I’m going to risk my life for $15 an hour, when I can go to Chick-fil-A and make at least $18 and be off on Sunday and the worst thing I have to do is say ‘my pleasure’ a thousand times a day, then what’s the purpose, you know?”
The starting pay for a CPD officer is $13.75 per hour. By comparison, the starting pay rate for a Starkville police officer is $19.25 and is likely to go up. The Starkville Board of Aldermen is considering a 1 mill tax increase to fund a pay raise for police and firefighters.
Closing the gap between what Columbus officers and Starkville police officers can’t be done through the 4-percent across-the-board pay raise.
As the budget talks continue, the CPD may be without a strong advocate for police pay raises. Shelton’s last day on the job is Monday. How inclined interim chief Doran Johnson will be to butt heads with the mayor and council is uncertain, especially since he has hopes to become the permanent chief. Go along to get along? It’s a possibility.
Between now and September the mayor and council are going to have to make some tough decisions about pay.
A minimum wage increase to $12.50 is worth considering. So is a 4-percent across-the board raise. So is a significant increase in police officer pay.
You can’t have all of that with a 1.21 mill increase.
It will come down to priorities.
And, yes, we expect a bumpy ride.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
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