COLUMBIA — In front of a packed house Monday night, the Columbia City Council approved a budget for fiscal year 2010.
The overwhelming majority of those in attendance were there to voice concerns on proposed changes to certain benefits for city employees. At the previous Sept. 8 council meeting, union representatives for city employees proposed a 1.2 percent cut for all city employees as an alternative to the city manager's proposed changes.
The budget process has been particularly difficult this year as the city faced a projected 2.9 percent drop in revenue. In crafting the 2010 budget proposal, City Manager Bill Watkins faced the task of finding $2 million in savings. The budget as passed comes in at around $403 million — down from the roughly $415 million budget approved last year. Watkins requested cuts in spending across most city departments, but two areas in particular garnered the most discussion Monday night: changes to employee benefits and cuts in social services funding.
Watkins had proposed cutting about $973,000 from the 2010 budget by restructuring overtime pay and reducing sick-leave buybacks. Under Watkins' proposal, city employees would still be eligible for overtime pay, but they would no longer be able to count paid sick time, vacation and holidays toward hours worked in a week.
In addition, the city would reduce the rate that it would buy employees' sick-time back from 75 percent to 50 percent of hours accumulated. Advocates of the union's proposal say that 1.2 percent pay cut was equivalent to the amount saved by Watson's recommendations.
The council voted 6 to 1, with Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe dissenting, in favor of passing the budget with the new benefit structure intact rather than using the union's proposal.
Regina Guevara is a field representative for Local 773, which represents employees in the city's Parks and Recreation and Public Works departments and some Municipal Power Plant employees. She expressed disappointment with the council's decision.
"One thing not communicated was that the overtime benefit has been in place for more than 30 years," Guevara said. She was one of many who argued before the council that benefit cuts would affect some employees more than others. She also expressed concern that the council was using a bad financial situation to get rid of benefits favorable to union workers.
"I think the city is taking advantage of a bad situation," Guevara said.
There were also many city employees in attendance that spoke in favor of Watkins' proposal. Jill Wieneke is the vice president of the Columbia Police Officers' Association. She expressed concern that a 1.2 percent cut would not actually affect everyone equally.
"Obviously, there are different definitions of fair," Wieneke said. "The person that would be paying for (a 1.2 percent cut) would be the person making $10 an hour."
Last year, the City of Columbia allocated a total of $903,743 to various social service groups. This year Watkins asked for three sets of recommendations for social service funding: level funding; a 2.5 percent cut; or a 5 percent cut. A 5 percent cut would have reduced the social services budget to $858,556.
proposed cuts generated a lot of testimony from representatives of
social service organizations, many of whom argued that now was not the
time to make cuts because the down economy had created more need.
In the end the council approved funding of about $895,000, or about 1 percent less than last year. Funds came primarily from the council's discretionary fund. For 2010 the council has $100,000 to spend on projects as it sees fit as well as $26,000 left in the 2009 fund. The $26,000 can be used to fund projects in 2010 as long as it is dedicated before the start of the fiscal year.
The 2010 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.