COLUMBIA — The squeeze on city budgets seems to have tightened around the Office of Emergency Management.
On Wednesday, Director Zim Schwartze, a long-time city employee, was relieved of her duties by City Manager Mike Matthes.
Matthes said the decision was made purely out of concern for the city's budget and that Schwartze would not be replaced in her position.
"It was a budget deletion," Matthes said.
Schwartze, who served in the Columbia Police Department for 21 years, had become eligible for an officer's pension earlier this year in February. Matthes said she had been counting down the days using an application on her smartphone and often reminded him how near she was to retiring. But in January, he asked her to stay on as director past her intended retirement date.
Sometime thereafter, both seemed to have a change of mind.
Matthes said he had approached Schwartze about re-establishing a retirement date after budget shortages forced him to reconsider her employment. Schwartze, however, had decided she wasn’t yet ready to sever ties from her position, he said.
Matthes confirmed that Schwartze did not go willingly but said he did not know why she’d changed her mind about retiring.
"She would have preferred to stay on," he said. “That confused me.”
Schwartze said she preferred not to comment ahead of scheduled, upcoming council action, though she would not say what that action might be. Matthes said the council would discuss Schwartze’s termination along with other budgetary considerations.
As part of an agreed severance, Schwartze has been placed on administrative leave and will receive a separation package.
Joe Piper, deputy director of emergency management, confirmed the decision to remove Schwartze appeared sudden and was affecting the staff.
"Morale is not at its best," Piper said. "It's shocking to me, and I'm a bit overwhelmed."
Piper has been charged with assuming the executive director's duties for now, but he also said he'd been anticipating making up a staff shortage for another senior staff member. Donna Hargis is retiring Thursday from her position as communications officer and has more than 30-years experience with the office.
"We were stretched thin when there were three of us," he said. "I'm only one person. It's a very difficult time for us." There are 32 full-time staff currently employed at the office.
Matthes said that Hargis will be kept on as temporary, part-time staff in order to train a replacement and to assist in the transition period. Matthes said Schwartze had not been offered a similar option to help assist a transition effort while she is being paid during her administrative leave.
“Historically, that’s a bad practice (when terminating an employee),” Matthes said.
Mayor Bob McDavid said he accepted the city manager's decision to eliminate Schwartze's job on its face as a budgetary action, but he also confirmed that the city's general fund, which finances the Office of Emergency Management's administrative costs, was doing "reasonably well." Sales tax revenue was expected to be up 4 to 5 percent this fiscal year, adding about $1 million to the general fund.
According to the city's Human Resources Department, Schwartze made $87,414 in annual salary.
Schwartze had spent the bulk of her career in city employment as a member of the Police Department before departing in 2009 to become the director of Public Safety Joint Communications at the Office of Emergency Management.
In 1991, Schwartze began at the Police Department as a community service aide. She was promoted to officer in 1992 and made sergeant in 1997. By 2003, she had become Columbia's first female captain.
Schwartze had said she was "very interested" in assuming the Columbia police chief's position after former chief Randy Boehm retired in 2008. At the time, she was the only qualified officer within the department's command staff eligible to take the position and would have been the first female chief in Columbia. Current Police Chief Ken Burton was eventually appointed to the position from outside the department.
Matthes said recent challenges to Burton’s continued employment as chief by groups including the Columbia Fraternal Order of Police had no influence on his decision to terminate Schwartze.
“There is no interaction with those two issues,” he said.
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