While Columbia officials were running multimillion-dollar budget deficits and spending $24.7 million in the city's emergency reserves during the past five years, some of the city's highest paid employees saw pay increases of a combined $5 million.
State law requires the salaries of any public employee making $50,000 or more to be disclosed to the public. The city posts a list of all employees earning $50,000 or more on its Web site.
Columbia had 172 employees who made more than $50,000 a year in 2004, according to a compensation and classification study that year that cost taxpayers $80,000. The city had a total of 1,900 employees that year.
In January 2009, Columbia had 412 employees earning more than $50,000 a year. More than half of those 412 employees were either police officers or firefighters, who saw an average pay increase of $13,981.48 over the five years.
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The largest average pay increases - $22,036 over the five years - went to 12 employees who worked for former city manager Charles Austin.
All told, the combined salaries of all city employees making more than $50,000 increased by $5 million from 2004 to 2009, according to an analysis of city salaries by The State newspaper.
The pay of city employees is being discussed by city leaders this year because this is a critical year for the city's budget. The city's emergency reserves have dwindled to less than $3 million, leaving no cushion should the city run another multimillion-dollar deficit.
A majority of City Council members have been unwilling to approve across-the-board salary cuts or mass layoffs of employees to address the city's budget woes.
Interim city manager Steve Gantt has made it clear he would not cut salaries or impose mass layoffs without council's approval, even though he doesn't need it under Columbia's form of government.
Instead, council wants to pay an outside firm up to $150,000 to do an efficiency study that would tell it how to save money.
On Wednesday, council members voted unanimously to pursue a contract with Equa Terra, a business advisory company based in Houston.
City Manager Steve Gantt told council members the city does not have money to pay for the study but said he is trying to find the cash needed.
With more than 75 percent of the city's annual general fund budget going to employees' salaries, council members expect an efficiency study would recommend the city either cut back some salaries or trim its now 2,100-employee work force.
The pay increases started with the 2004 study, conducted by MGT of America. It called for pay increases totaling more than $2 million a year for the city's employees. Gantt said the recommended pay hikes were made.
From June 2004 to June 2009, City Council members approved on average a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment for employees every year. Employees also received merit increases of up to 2.5 percent. A few times, council members voted to give additional raises to public safety workers to be competitive with other law enforcement agencies.
The pay increases came during a period when the city did not have its bank accounts reconciled and did not know how much money it had available.
"We would not have been in the situation we are in now had we known and had those monthly financial reports," Councilman E.W. Cromartie said. "We did not have that information, and we did not make the best decisions based upon accurate information.
"Would we have done something different? Probably."
Eight of the 12 people in Austin's office received pay increases because of promotions from 2004 to 2009:
- Gladys Brown, whose annual pay grew to $129,000, about a $45,000 increase, with a promotion from court director to assistant city manager for administrative services. She continued to supervise municipal court along with her new assistant city manager duties.
- Allison Baker, whose annual pay grew to $129,000, about a $30,000 increase, with a promotion from parks and recreation director to assistant city manager for neighborhood and community development. He continued to supervise parks and recreation in addition to his new assistant city manager duties.
- Valerie Smith, whose annual pay grew to $79,000, about a $26,000 increase, with a promotion from executive assistant to office manager, where she supervised five people.
- Shirley Dilbert, whose annual pay grew to $60,000, about a $24,000 increase, with a promotion from executive assistant to the city manager to public services coordinator.
- Starr Hockett, whose annual pay grew to $56,000, about a $13,000 increase, with a promotion to administrative fiscal resources coordinator.
- Libby Gober, whose annual pay grew to $77,000, about a $23,000 increase, with a promotion to administrative liaison to City Council.
- Gantt, whose annual pay grew to $135,000, about a $22,000 increase, with a promotion to bureau chief of operations. (Gantt now is interim city manager.)
- Willie Henderson, whose annual pay grew to $66,000, about a $19,000 increase, with a promotion to senior internal auditor. (He no longer works for the city.)
The titles of the other four staffers in Austin's office did not change, but their pay did increase:
- Erika Salley, the city clerk, whose annual pay grew to $66,000, about a $21,000 increase.
- Leshia Utsey, the city's public relations director, whose annual pay grew to $101,000, about a $17,000 increase.
- Pamela Ferst, a records management administrator, whose annual pay grew to $70,000, about a $14,000 increase.
- Austin, the city manager who retired in January and whose annual pay grew to $161,000, about an $8,000 increase. (City Council approved that raise.)
Austin also added two positions to his staff - an executive adviser and governmental affairs director who was paid $101,000 a year and a governmental affairs administrator who was paid $63,000 a year.
"I do believe those persons were qualified to be in a position they were in, and I believe the salaries they were paid were competitive and salaries that they deserved," said Austin, now dean of the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Benedict College.
There is no cost-of-living increase for city employees in this year's budget, which went into effect July 1.
In January, after more than a year of work to sort out the city's finances, council members started receiving monthly financial statements. The news was not good, and council began to cut costs.
From January to July, 84 employees who make more than $50,000 received raises, mostly merit increases, for a total of $94,000. That includes the $17,300 pay increase for Mike King, who was promoted to assistant city manager for public safety.
More than half of those raises went to police officers and firefighters, who are in the middle of a three-year salary increase plan that was approved by council members last year. Those were merit increases that Gantt said the city owed to the employees before the city began cutting costs.
Also from January to July, two employees making more than $50,000 had their pay reduced and another 24 either retired, were laid off or left the city. Those salaries saved the city $1.7 million a year.
On Sept. 15, council members voted to not pay employees for six of their remaining eight holidays this fiscal year - a move that amounted to a temporary $1.8 million pay cut.
But the cuts are largely seen as temporary fixes designed to get the city through this budget year. That's why Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine has been pushing for an efficiency study. She wants the city to have a long-range plan so it doesn't have to cut employee holiday pay again next year.
"We are still going into another budget planning process without fully understanding how we are going to make it year to year," Devine said. "(A study) gives us the pull to implement the culture changes and management changes that we need to actually do things differently."
Others on council wonder why city officials can't cut costs themselves without paying someone else to tell them how to do it.
"Right now, we don't have the money in the budget," Councilwoman Belinda Gergel said. "I know there are things we're going to need to do better. I've asked that our city manager and his top team all look at efficiencies."