Following four hours of sometimes contentious discussion, the Lee’s Summit City Council on Thursday appeared to gain headway in their quest to boost the salaries of city employees to match market averages.
The council voted 5-3 to approve the key points of an ordinance that would add $5 million to city wages, a level that would boost the lowest-paid employees to the market minimum salary for their positions and adjust other workers to be in the same relative position in the pay scale as they are now.
The members delayed voting on the ordinance itself until their Feb. 16 meeting to give legal staff time to incorporate a number of changes they made to the ordinance from the dais.
“This should come back to us next week in a more polished form,” Mayor Randy Rhodes said.
The ordinance, however, does not designate how to pay for the wage increases, a factor that led council members Diane Forte, Rob Binney and Trish Carlyle to oppose the measure.
“We can’t go down this road, you guys, without knowing where the dollars are coming from,” Forte said.
The three supported a more limited strategy that would use $1.6 million already set aside in the city budget for wage increases and then look for additional revenue or budget cuts in the coming months. That measure was defeated by a 5-3 vote.
Supporters of the $5 million figure said the city has failed to address employee pay gaps identified in compensation studies for years and that the council must act quickly to avoid additional trouble attracting and retaining quality employees, particularly among public safety where the market is most competitive.
“I wish that we could handle it the way (the opponents) say,” Councilman Craig Faith said. “That opportunity sailed three studies ago. What we have now is we have a large group of employees that are ready to go someplace else.”
Using figures mentioned at the council’s Feb. 1 meeting by Fraternal Order of Police President Rick Inglima, Faith set out how much of the proposed $5 million would go to each group of workers: $1.8 million for “core” workers who aren’t represented by a union, $1.8 million for employees represented by police union, $900,000 for employees represented by the International Association of Fire Fighters, and $500,000 for those represented by the International Association of Machinists.
Carlyle and Binney criticized assigning pay amounts to represented groups in public because the city is in the middle of wage negotiations with some of those groups.
“I don’t know why we’re picking favorites,” Binney said.
City Manager Steve Arbo estimated the $1.6 million already set aside would likely cover the added salary expense of the proposed ordinance for the remainder of the city’s fiscal year, which ends June 30.
But the council would have to come up with an additional $3.4 million in next year’s budget to maintain the $5 million level. That amount doesn’t include the council’s desire to implement a “step pay” system for its employees who are represented by collective bargaining.
Arbo said adding in a step-pay system and making other salary adjustments could push the full cost of the wage increases to between $6 million and $8 million.
The council has considered several options for additional funding but hasn’t gotten behind one in particular.
For example, the council on Thursday asked legal staff to come back Feb. 16 with an ordinance that would allow them to pull some or all of those dollars from the city’s reserve fund, a pot of money set aside to keep the city running during an emergency.
City policy currently prevents the council from using that money for recurring expenses like salaries.
They also asked legal staff to bring back a measure that would ask voters on the Aug. 7 ballot to approve a half-cent sales tax increase and the creation of a 1-cent user tax, levied on purchases from vendors outside Missouri. Arbo estimated the added sales tax would generate $7.9 million a year and the user tax would generate $634,939 a year.
Besides salary increases, he said some of that money could be also used to hire additional employees in growing parts of the city government, make delayed technology and equipment purchases, improve security in the police department’s lobby, rehabilitate and expand Fire Station No. 4 on Woods Chapel Road, and locate an emergency medical unit near the Lakewood and Oak Ridge Meadows neighborhoods, which currently have higher response times.
Arbo also presented a long list of potential cuts to city spending and increases in city user fees, which together could generate more than $2 million.
Most of the cuts would be painful, including reductions to city employee benefits, the closing of the North Recycling Center, canceling the city’s contribution to the July 4th fireworks event Legacy Blast, turning off city streetlights during early morning hours, putting police and fire department dispatchers in the same building, and being less aggressive on clearing city streets of snow.
“There’s just not that many places in our budget that you can start cutting,” Arbo said.
Each option has its supporters and detractors on the council.
For example, Councilwoman Phyllis Edson said she didn’t want to wait until after the ballot referendum to increase wages because, assuming the measure passed, the city wouldn’t see the extra dollars until January 2019, forcing workers to wait another year.
Councilman Dave Mosby, on the other hand, said he opposed new taxes and supported making deep budget cuts.
Tim Arbeiter, president of Lee’s Summit Chamber of Commerce, continued to ask the council for restraint, particularly when it came to drawing down the reserve fund or increasing sales taxes. He pointed to the difficulties suffered by neighboring Oak Grove when it was struck by a tornado last year.
“A community that has a healthy reserve balance is able to mobilize and get going with the resources necessary to get the city back upon its feet and the citizens back on their feet after a crisis like Oak Grove,” Arbeiter said.
Nicole Walters, president of the Lee’s Summit Police Officers Association, on the other hand, said the council needed to take steps now to address long-standing pay disparities that have affected employee morale.
“This didn’t happen overnight and I don’t expect it to be fixed overnight, but it did happen and in order to fix it there need to be some real adjustments now,” Walters said. “Of course, there may be some pain in the short term, but I believe it will yield a long-term benefit.”
David Twiddy: firstname.lastname@example.org