Columbia City Council members focused on employee compensation, police positions, public transportation funding and utility priorities when discussing the fiscal year 2020 budget for the first time at a Monday meeting.
Council members didn’t make definitive plans during the meeting or provide community members an opportunity to make public comments.
Laura Peveler, the city’s budget officer, said revenue and transfers are $3.6 million above expenditures within the last six months. It’s typical for revenue to surpass expenses at this point in the year because the city collects property taxes and spends them throughout the year, she said. However, last year’s revenues and transfers were $5.3 million above expenditures. The city’s financial department had reviewed “a lot of the budget,” prior to the meeting, Peveler said. “Things are still pretty fluid, so these are super rough numbers.”
She estimated the city will have $407,000 to add to cash reserves, which would leave the city with $13.9 million in excess general fund reserves by the end of 2019. Now the council must decide how much of the excess funds it will allocate and to which departments. Peveler said the city had $1.6 million of fleet replacement needs for 2020. The council also needs to allocate funds to create three municipal court positions, temporary jobs in the law department and three police positions that will cover the new precinct. All of those items would cost around $1.2 million. Any decisions to allocate additional pay for city employees would cost more.
Margrace Buckler, director of Columbia’s Human Resources Department, presented a “current compensation philosophy” to the council members. She said her department wants to be competitive with external market rates while focusing on internal equity.
The presentation outlined four parts for compensation: market adjustments, moving to midpoint, across-the-board increases and performance pay. Council members were on the fence about performance-based pay, which the city hasn’t implemented since 2009. Trapp, who supports performance pay, said it is “intrinsically invaluable.”
In fiscal year 2019, the city didn’t adjust compensation to market values or adopt performance pay. Eligible employees who worked five years in their position were moved to midpoint, and all city employees received a 45-cent raise. Buckler said high turnover and low unemployment are her greatest concerns.
“As of May 15, we’ve had 101 positions turnover already this fiscal year,” Buckler said. “And within the last pay period or so, I’ve processed over 20 more terminations.”
Many employees are leaving, and the city is having trouble filling vacancies because wages aren’t competitive, she said.
Buckler presented council members two options recommended by Paypoint HR, a consulting firm. Council members gave more support toward the second approach, which was outlined in steps: give employees an across-the-board wage increase, move to classifications suggested by the consulting firm, move to a minimum adjustment pay for an employee who is paid below their classification, and move to midpoint adjustment at 100% for someone employed for five years or more, and an incremental move for employees with fewer years worked.
Buckler said that option would be less costly and is a greater benefit to employees with five years on the job. It would cost the city around $3 million if chosen. Mayor Brian Treece said the plan gives “everybody something.” Skala agreed with Treece, and said he liked the incremental approach. He called the plan “moderate.” Interim City Manager John Glascock said at this point, he is more interested in a dollar amount the council was willing to spend rather than an exact compensation plan. Trapp said he is wary of any plan that could cause the city to use more than $3 million from excess funds. “Raising it beyond on that is scary for the future position of the city, because we have to meet those obligations,” he said. “Or we’re talking layoffs when we reach a day or reckoning, and I see that coming.”
The Columbia Police Department is requesting 24 new positions, which would include two school resource officers and six community service aides who would focus on community policing. Interim Police Chief Geoff Jones said the department can’t meet the needs on the street without those additional positions.
There is only one officer bouncing among the six middle schools in Columbia. The school district only reimburses the city 50% for school resource officers, Jones said.
“I think it’s part of our community policing strategy,” Treece said, “to introduce students to officers at a young age.”
Council members said they would unanimously support writing a letter to Columbia Public Schools about potentially raising its reimbursement amount. The council did not comment on the other 22 requested positions.
Jones said the department still has work to do, but its turnover is stable.
Public transit wasn’t originally a topic for the work session, but Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas opened up the floor to discuss transit funding.
“I would like to see an increase in the transit operating budget in fiscal 2020,” Thomas said. “We’ve heard many great hardships about the cuts we just imposed, and it’s important we restore some funding and service that was cut.”
Thomas suggested the council look at different ways to provide transit such as flex zones, ride-sharing or ride-hailing for parts of the city that don’t have access to public transit. He also said the council needs to focus on growing the transit system.
Skala said the road budget, which gets more funding than the airport and public transit, could “afford” a slight decrease that could help public transit.
Thomas and Skala both proposed the notion of paid parking at the Columbia Regional Airport to also cover public transit needs.
City utility staff proposed that utility rate changes for next year be based off this year’s expenses after the fiscal year ends in October, instead of deciding in April or May of 2020.
“This proposal will allow staff to have a better financial picture of how the utilities fare, determining whether a rate increase is necessary or not,” Sarah Talbert, acting utility financial manager, said.
Skala and Sixth Ward Councilwoman Betsy Peters agreed with the city utility staff’s proposal, but Treece disagreed and proposed a different plan.
“I’d rather not pass a budget in September with projects that are dependent upon a January rate increase,” Treece said. “I’d rather consider a January rate increase and appropriate the money in the July, August, September budget.”
The Utilities Department also has job vacancy issues, particularly among senior equipment operators, refuse collectors and line workers. David Sorrell, Utilities Department assistant director, said, vacancies weren’t an issue nine years ago.
Talbert said the department also needs money for fleet replacement, which is “not sustainable to not replace.”
For 2019, multiple utilities have extra cash reservesL Water has an estimated $4.8 million, electric has $4.4 million, solid waste has $6.1 million, and storm water has more than $500,000. Staff wants to use $6.4 million from last year’s $10.8 million sewer cash reserves to fund upcoming capital projects.
Treece proposed “sweeping half of water and light’s cash reserves” into general revenue to address employee compensation and pubic safety concerns. Thomas questioned whether the transfer of utility funds to general funds was possible, and Treece explained it was permissible by the city charter. Glascock said he would check with City Counselor Nancy Thompson.
“It’s been long-standing that there are hot-button issues; public safety is one of them, and salaries and compensation are the other,” Skala said. “These structural issues and, of course, infrastructure, those are the big-ticket items where we need to focus.”
The council will approve the final fiscal year 2020 budget in September.
Supervising editor is Marcelle Peters.