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A tug of war over salary increases for city employees escalated this week when the Columbus City Council scuttled bonus pay that Mayor Kristen Brown backed for seven high-level employees, instead approving a higher across-the-board cost-of-living adjustment than the mayor wanted.
Tuesday night, the City Council approved the first reading of an ordinance that included a 3 percent cost-of-living raise for all city employees. The mayor had favored a salary ordinance that included a 2.5 percent cost-of-living raise and $35,000 that she could disperse among seven positions to reward their performance.
Brown has wanted to increase the pay of seven positions in particular because she believes they are critical to the operations of city government. The positions include six department heads (engineer, planner, police chief, city garage, city attorney, director of operations and finance) and one non-department head (assistant to the mayor).
The idea for the bonus came out of comments from July 30-31 city budget hearings, said Jeff Logston, Columbus’ director of operations and finance.
City Council members said Tuesday it was unfair to exclude other department heads from consideration for bonuses. They also said that in order for bonus pay to be approved, they wanted to know what criteria these employees met to deserve bonuses.
Approval of the 3 percent has a $600,000 impact on the proposed 2013 city budget. A 2.5 percent increase would have a $500,000 impact. The higher amount for raises increases the city’s total spending budget for next year to $45.6 million, which still leaves a projected surplus of about $275,000, Logston said.
Discussion of pay increases grew contentious during Tuesday’s meeting.
“I wish you would trust me here to figure out how to spend $35,000, honestly,” Brown told council members.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of trust. I think it’s a matter or process,” council member Ryan Brand replied. “I just want there to be an established process for merit raises.”
Council member Frank Jerome said not including some department heads for consideration of bonuses made the process seem arbitrary.
“It’s not arbitrary. These are critical positions,” Brown said.
“I cut the budget $3 million per year, and you guys are hung up on a trivial amount of money?” she added.
Brand and council member Jim Lienhoop replied that it’s not the amount of money but the process by which it would be distributed that concerned them.
The discussion was part of a larger issue of moving the city toward a system that ties raises to performance, establishes goals for employees to meet and includes a review system. Brown favors the system, which is what she worked under during her corporate career. She doesn’t like a system where all employees receive the same raise, regardless of how they have performed.
Brown said that she wanted the bonuses for the positions because she believed the employees were among the city’s best, they were underpaid compared to similar private-sector jobs and she feared losing some of them.
“I don’t believe that the council is against merit pay-based increases. In fact, I think they would applaud increases or bonuses based on performance,” Brand said after the meeting. “But let’s have a process in place before we allocate the funds. Let’s not decide who’s going to receive the money before we have an opportunity to review the employees.”
Brand said council members were concerned that some of the positions included in the mayor’s bonus proposal are filled by new employees who don’t have enough of a track record yet to review. He added that the mayor promised a cost savings by making the city attorney a position within city government. But giving that position a bonus erases the savings, he said.
After the meeting, Brown said she believes it’s clear that the council doesn’t want to move toward a performance management system.
“The people elected me in a landslide, with a lot of confidence. The council can’t even trust me to spend $35,000,” she said.
Another approval of the salary ordinance is required by the City Council. Its next meeting is 6 p.m. Sept. 18. State law states that salary ordinances must be set by Sept. 30, although they can be tweaked during the first and second readings of the proposed city budget. The first reading is Sept. 18, the second Oct. 2.
In other business Tuesday, the City Council:
Approved a resolution to name the proposed downtown arts and cultural district the Columbus Arts District.
Declared a portion of land at Woodside Northwest Park, on International Drive, an economic revitalization zone, so that The Phoenix Group can proceed with a tax abatement request for construction of a $15 million manufacturing and assembly plant that would employ 50 people.
Approved a tax abatement for Nagakura Engineering Works, 630 S. Mapleton St., on new machinery valued at $1.5 million. The machinery would help the company, which makes automotive parts, support customers such as Honda.
Rezoned property owned by Columbus Free Methodist Church, 1511 22nd St., so it can build a parking lot.
Made an additional appropriation of $637,705 for the public employees retirement fund to make the city’s fourth-quarter payment at the start of the quarter, per a new state law.
Received $43,000 in federal stimulus funds earmarked for the Columbus Utilities Department for sewage works.
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