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Mayor, council debate government size


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Columbus City Council members want the city to provide services more efficiently while downsizing a request from Mayor Kristen Brown for more city employees.

But Brown said the city needs more employees to address growing demands for certain crucial services.

Councilmen voted down the mayor’s plan to add eight city employees and provide for merit-based raises up to 3 percent, depending on performance evaluations.

Instead, the council approved a salary ordinance Tuesday that provides for four new employees, including one new police officer, and raises maximum salaries for civilian employees 2.5 percent to keep up with inflation.

 

Columbus police officers and firefighters, who have their own negotiated contracts and a merit-based pay system based on rank, will receive a 2 percent increase under the amended ordinance. Both departments provide longevity pay.

The mayor’s proposed $50.2 million budget for 2015 asked for three new police officers, a part-time parking attendant, an additional bus driver, an additional sanitation driver, a revitalization program director in the city’s community development department and an

assistant redevelopment director.

The proposed budget provides $499,632 for those employees, including benefits and money for payroll taxes, before any adjustment. That number drops to $233,894 for the four employees approved by the council.

The budget also provides each department with enough money to give an average raise of 2 percent, Brown said.

Those new employees would help provide crucial services to the community, including a bus route to the city’s west side and curbside recycling, and spearhead important projects such as the development of the old Walesboro Airport as an industrial park, Brown said.

Police Chief Jon Rohde said three additional officers would ensure the sustainability of the Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving, or COPPS, unit. Launched in July 2013, COPPS has been used to help reduce crime in some of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods.

He said alternatives include reducing the minimum number of officers on the street or having officers work 12-hour shifts.

But adding police officers seems to be the best way to make sure the department doesn’t have to eliminate the COPPS unit due to a lack of manpower, the chief said. Because the department is short nine to 10 officers on any given day due to sick leave and other reasons, he’s starting to have to think about pulling from the dedicated unit to have the minimum number of officers on the street, he said.

Councilman Jim Lienhoop said the council recognizes and understands the value of the development projects and wants to help the Columbus Police Department continue its excellent work in the community. But the city doesn’t have an inexhaustible amount of money available to fund services or to hire and sustain additional employees, he said.

“We want to be prudent with the resources we have,” he said. “Before we bring people on board, we want to make sure we can take care of them in the long haul.”

While the city’s tax revenue has increased as the economy has rebounded, “you have to sort of wonder how long that’s going to continue,” Lienhoop said, adding it might be wise to increase the city’s rainy day fund.

The council also wants to make sure that any additional positions will continue to be necessary, Lienhoop said.

The projects in her plan will take years to manage, and there’s no shortage of work to be done, Brown said. The new positions represent investments, and at least one of the positions is directly tied to jobs at a new industrial park, she said.

And should a position become obsolete, the city would address it appropriately, the mayor said.

“We take an in-depth look at the need for every position,” she said. “If the job isn’t necessary, I’ll eliminate it.”

The city also evaluates employees on a regular basis through performance evaluations to help provide services more efficiently and more productively, Brown said.

Even though the council amended the salary ordinance to provide for a 2.5 cost-of-living adjustment, the city plans to implement a merit-based pay system, she said.

“To be evaluating and rewarding performance and striving to deliver our services as cost-effectively as possible without sacrificing quality is an obligation, I think, for us,” Brown said.

The council understands that the mayor has the ability to implement that system regardless of how council members amend the salary ordinance, Lienhoop said.

But he and other council members expressed concerns with a merit system, under which some employees may receive no raise or a raise that doesn’t keep up with lost buying power due to inflation — a move the council called unfair.

It also bothers the council that the system seems somewhat vague, Lienhoop said. Council members have not seen written goals or evidence of supervisors receiving training for evaluations, he said.

Since Brown took office in January 2012, the city has developed job descriptions for every position, and every department now evaluates its employees annually through a process that fits each department’s needs.

While the city can implement that system as planned, Brown said she is disappointed that the council eliminated half of the additional positions and hopes that council members will reconsider when it comes up for a second vote Sept. 16. But the city will make do with what it’s given, she said.

Lienhoop said the council would be willing to reassess these positions “if we get six months into the year and we find that we absolutely, positively need these people.”

He said the council already has met the mayor “a little more than halfway” by agreeing to one additional officer, additional drivers for sanitation and transit, a parking attendant and pay to give incentives to police officers and firefighters to take on extra responsibility through promotions and specialization.

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