Watkins calls city’s workforce his number one priority

Wednesday, August 1, 2007 | 12:07 a.m. CDT; updated 7:57 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 16, 2008

COLUMBIA-When City Manager Bill Watkins outlined the proposed budget for fiscal 2008, he relied on the motto “first things first” to prioritize needs. For Watkins, the first priority in the year’s tight budget is the city workforce.

“Because they are the city government’s most valuable asset, investing in the men and women who serve citizens every day remains my highest priority,” Watkins said during a news conference in the Columbia City Council chambers.

The budget, assembled by Watkins and his staff over the past several weeks, calls for spending a total of $362.8 million, up 10.6 percent from last year’s $328 million. It remains subject to approval by the council, which will hold a series of work sessions and public hearings during August and September. The fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Personnel issues were the primary theme during the news conference. Salary studies conducted for the city have found that many of the salaries it pays lag behind market levels. That makes it difficult to attract new employees, which is becoming a growing problem.

“Demographically, we’re seeing more and more people eligible for retirement,” Watkins said. “When it comes to replacing them, we’ve got to be competitive.”

To help the cause, Watkins proposed across-the-board pay raises of 1.5 percent or 30 cents per hour, whichever is greater, for city employees. Workers who demonstrate excellent performance would be eligible for another 2 percent raise under a new performance review process that will take effect with the new fiscal year.

Those two raises combined, however, are still less than the 4 percent across-the-board raise employees received last year. But the city plans to employ some other strategies to boost pay and benefits. Specifically, the positions of 71 employees will be upgraded to bring their salaries closer to market levels. And about 50 positions, including skilled labor, maintenance and higher-level clerical jobs, will receive position upgrades. The jobs of 20 more employees will be reclassified.

The city will continue to fully cover health insurance premiums for active employees and will pay an additional 9 to 35 cents per hour to help workers pay premiums for their dependents.

The budget also includes the addition of 19 new workers, including three police lieutenants, three firefighters and seven public works positions. The new jobs will have the budget impact of about 13 full-time positions because some are part-time and because the city will postpone filling others until late in the fiscal year.

Columbia police Chief Randy Boehm said two of his proposed three new lieutenants will become shift commanders, while the third will start a professional standards unit within the department. The latter initiative stems from a consultant’s recommendation on how to improve internal affairs procedures.

While Watkins said the city is committed to fulfilling the promises it made during campaigns for several ballot issues that have passed in recent years, lagging sales tax growth has made budgeting a struggle. Sales tax revenue has fallen significantly short of projections thus far this year, and the fiscal 2008 budget projects only a 3 percent increase. That would be a total sales revenue of about $40.5 million.

Given that, the city will have to dip into reserves to make the budget work, Watkins said. The spending plan calls for the city to spend $6.5 million from its fund balances, leaving fewer reserves for next year’s budget.

Slow revenue growth, new hires and more expensive employee packages mean the city will have to spend less on vehicles and other equipment during the coming year, Watkins said. Police cruisers, for example, will not be replaced this year.

Boehm said cutting vehicle purchases might save money for now, but the impact will be felt in future budgets through a “trickle-down effect.”

“We certainly would have liked to do a number of things, but we understand the pain is being shared equally among departments,” he said.

Watkins acknowledged the budget requires some give and take.

“I’m sure there’s concern that if we can’t afford to replace police cruisers, why are we giving everyone raises, even small ones,” Watkins said.

But he added that he believes employees recognize the city’s budget constraints.

Attempts to reach several representatives of city employees’ collective bargaining groups were unsuccessful.

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