Council moving toward ‘second class’

Columbus City Council is moving ahead with plans to change the city’s class status in 2024, but one councilman remains opposed to the idea.

The council voted Tuesday to approve the first reading of an ordinance changing the city of Columbus from a third class city to a second class city. The vote was 6-1, with Councilman Frank Miller, R-District 4, opposing the measure.

Ordinances must be passed on two readings to be fully approved; the council’s next meeting is scheduled for July 5. If the proposed legislation is approved, Columbus will officially become a second class city on Jan. 1, 2024. The change would entail certain changes to city structure, including the addition of two more city council members.

Tuesday’s council meeting was brief, lasting about 10 minutes overall. The second class city proposal was the only item on the agenda, and the matter had already been discussed at length during the group’s June 7 meeting.

Miller expressed concern then about the costs that such a change might entail.

“For me, it’s just growing government,” he said. “It’s growing the cost of government. And I can appreciate what the mayor has shared with us about the optional changes, and the way it’s proposed here is ‘We don’t anticipate doing this.’ … That is this administration’s thought.”

However, future administrations could decide to enact the optional changes that second class cities are allowed to make.

Other council members see the move to second class status as a way to provide better representation for residents, obtain additional help with complex financial matters and foster more collaboration between city officials through checks and balances.

“With the growth we’ve had over 22 years, and the growth we can expect to have over the next, with the size of the budget that has run up, since that time, to what it currently is now, I think it’s our due diligence to look at this as an opportunity to really be more progressive as far as the city’s concerned,” said Councilman Tom Dell, D-at large.

At present, Indiana Code states that municipalities are designated by status and population as follows:

  • Cities of 600,000 or more — First class cities
  • Cities of 35,000 to 599,999 — Second class cities
  • Cities of less than 35,000 — Third class cities
  • Other municipalities of any population — Towns

As of July 1, 2022, the minimum population for second class cities will be updated to 34,000 due to newly-approved legislation.

In Columbus’ case, the difference is irrelevant. According to census counts from STATS Indiana, the city had already attained a population of more than 39,000 by the year 2000, and its 2020 count was a little more than 50,000.

However, such increases do not automatically trigger a change in status, state law says it is up to an eligible city’s legislative body to make that choice.

The transition in class would entail a number of changes to city structure. For second class cities, the legislative body is made up of nine total individuals — six members representing six districts and three at-large members. Columbus City Council is currently made up of five district representatives and two at-large.

Additionally, city councils for second class cities choose a president and vice president from their members to preside over meetings. In third class cities, such as Columbus, the mayor presides at all city council meetings but may vote only if a tie needs to be broken. The council also has a president pro tempore who presides if the mayor is absent.

“In Class 2 cities, the mayor does not vote on issues before the council, even in the case of a tie,” city officials stated in a memo. “In case of a tie, the issue is treated as if it failed as it did not receive sufficient votes to pass.”

Mayors in both second and third class cities have the option to veto council decisions, which in turn can be overridden by a 2/3 majority vote of the council.

The change in city status would affect other positions as well. State code specifies that while third class cities elect a clerk-treasurer, second class cities elect a clerk. Both positions fill the role of city clerk; however, the clerk-treasurer also serves as the city’s fiscal officer. In a second class city, the fiscal officer is a city controller appointed by the mayor.

Lienhoop estimated that the cost of adding a city controller and two more council members would total about $150,000. According to city officials, the midpoint salary for the role of city engineer is $118,118, and a similar compensation level would be expected for the controller, subject to market conditions. Council members’ salaries are $15,079 each.

There are also more minor changes that are required for second class cities — such as changing the official titles of the city’s legal counsel — and some optional changes, said city officials. Optional changes include splitting the Board of Works and Public Safety into two boards, creating a deputy mayor position, creating a department of health, creating a department of sanitation and creating a city court. However, city officials said they do not expect to institute these changes with this change.