Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown is ready to move ahead on more of her priorities for city government, including addressing the lack of affordable housing, working toward a healthier community and stimulating the development of small- and medium-sized businesses.
But when she looks in city government for leaders on those initiatives, she sees only empty chairs.
To help put the right people in the right spots to accomplish her goals, Brown pitched a plan two weeks ago to the City Council that would create a business development position in city government by shifting a job between two departments. Creating that position would then free her community development director to pursue more people-oriented initiatives on the mayor’s agenda, she said.
The City Council voted down the first steps of the proposal at its Feb. 5 meeting — the creation of the business development position.
Nevertheless, the mayor has been advertising for the job anyway, but with a lower salary and as part of an organizational structure that doesn’t require City Council approval, she said.
“I am going to continue to do the very best we can to address these priorities in the community,” Brown said. “If I am handcuffed by the Council, I am handcuffed by the council, but I am going to do it.”
City Council President Ryan Brand said he was shocked that the mayor is forging ahead with the job search, without coming back to City Council for the changes she requested.
“I understand the mayor’s strong desire to create this economic development person in City Hall,” Brand said. “I believe it is in the best interest of the community that both the Council and the mayor’s office are on the same page.”
Brand said the Council was generally supportive of the mayor’s proposal but wanted some specific questions answered about the salary range, the county’s view on the responsibility changes and to make sure the job doesn’t conflict with role of the nonprofit Columbus Economic Development Board. The board is made up of local government organizations and private companies, and works to bring companies to Columbus.
Brand said the City Council also strongly supports economic development, but he believes the position needs to be created the proper way.
“Here’s what I hope happens; I hope that the mayor presents the position back to Council with the information that we requested and that council has the ability to review that and approve the original position that was presented to council, therefore making the posted position one that was not necessary,” Brand said.
The changes are not on Tuesday’s City Council agenda, either as an item up for a vote or for discussion. The mayor sets the agenda for City Council meetings.
Under the Indiana Constitution, the mayor is responsible for supervising city employees and ensuring efficient operations of city government. But the Indiana Constitution gives City Council the responsibility of setting city employee salaries through a salary ordinance that outlines the positions by job title.
Brown’s original request was to create the business development position by moving a vacant zoning enforcement position in the planning department to the community development department. City Council voted down that proposal at its Feb. 5 meeting.
Brown also asked the City Council to allow her to combine the salaries of the vacant zoning enforcement position and the vacant community development director position into a pool of money to be split between the two jobs. She would then have flexibility to begin negotiations with potential employees and to adjust the salary ranges as needed. City Council also turned down that proposal.
The business development position the mayor is seeking to fill would keep the job under the planning department. And she has reduced the salary range so that it falls within the pay of the empty zoning enforcement position. The original proposed job description for the business specialist that Brown presented to the City Council would have been $45,035 to $63,335. Because Brown is using the empty planning department position, the advertised salary is now capped at $45,035 a year. Neither development requires City Council approval because they do not affect the salary ordinance, she said.
“What we are dealing with here, unfortunately, these are not legislative issues,” Brown said. “This is the minutiae and the day-to-day operations of the executive branch.
“I honestly didn’t think this was a big deal,” Brown said. “If you look at what I am doing and why I am doing it, I am working with the existing head count constraints and on this position, I am not even asking for any additional money.... This should not be a big issue for the council.
“Now, why I am making the changes is a big issue. This is important.”
Brown said the business development position is needed because it would dedicate a full-time position to one of her top priorities — creating a strong, diversified economy for Columbus.
The mayor outlined eight priorities for the city in her strategic plan, including creating a strong, diversified economy, increasing quality housing opportunities and improving the health of the community. She said she believes each of those can only be accomplished through public/private partnerships, and used examples such as the Community Education Coalition and the Healthy Communities Initiative as models.
“I need a strong leader on each of these that can be at the seat at the table and a real key partner in these public/private coalitions,” Brown said. “We can be much more effective when we have common goals, common measures of success and we are partnering together with the initiatives to drive those outcomes.”
Although some of her priorities already have committed public/private partnerships in place, she said she has found it hard to find people to champion other causes within the current city structure. For example, addressing the need for affordable, middle-class housing is one of the mayor’s priorities, but Brown said there is no one who specifically is required by their job description to make sure it progresses. The mayor said she created the Small to Medium Size Business Advisory Council, but no one has the time or assigned duty to schedule and convene the meetings.
One of the concerns the City Council had was whether the business-development position overlapped or conflicted with the efforts of the non-profit Columbus Economic Development Board. The executive committee of the Economic Development Board helped Brown make changes to the job description to ensure that it complemented their group’s efforts rather than conflicted, committee members said.
Al Roszczyk, the committee president and Indiana regional president for First Financial Bank, said the position is very complementary to the board’s efforts.
“I think the vision is absolutely consistent with us and the mayor and the city,” Roszczyk said.
Kurt Ellis, vice president of the executive committee and vice president of business development and outpatient services at Columbus Regional Hospital, said the board and the city have long worked in partnership to reach economic development goals.
“That partnership and effort continues today,” Ellis said. “There has not been any lapse in that and it continues. We saw this position as a way to help enhance that and continue to provide resources for job creation in the community.”
Bruce Nolting, secretary of the executive committee and vice president of production control purchasing at Toyota Industrial Equipment Manufacturing Inc., said the lack of such a position in city government has led to complications for his company’s newest tax abatement request. TIEM has had to work with the mayor herself to process the paperwork for an abatement that City Council is scheduled to hear on Tuesday.
“We can’t be effective unless both sides work together, and this opportunity with this new position will enhance the current situation and make both more effective,” Nolting said.