THE STATE'S RECENT analysis of pay increases within Columbia city government not only gives us yet another look at how free-wheeling the city has been with public money, but also reminds us of how deep a financial hole the municipality is struggling to climb out of.
Columbia officials have taken a number of difficult but necessary steps to improve city finances - from cutting services and instituting layoffs and buyouts to requiring employees to pay for health insurance and cutting holiday pay. But things are so critical - reserves have dwindled to less than $3 million - that more must be done.
With more than 75 percent of the city's general fund budget dedicated to salaries, the issue of pay is front and center. Salary increases between 2004 and 2009 helped create this mess. In his report, State staff writer Adam Beam noted that even as the city was running up multimillion-dollar deficits and extinguishing nearly $25 million in reserves, some of the highest-paid employees saw pay increases of a combined $5 million.
As of January, nearly one in five of the city's 2,100 employees made more than $50,000 a year. More than half of the 412 paid at that level were either police officers or firefighters, who received an average pay increase of $13,981 over the five-year period.
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But the largest average pay increases - $22,036 over the five years - went to 12 employees who worked for then-city manager Charles Austin. Eight received increases because of promotions. One moved from court director to assistant city manager for administrative services and received an increase of $45,000; others received increases of $30,000, $26,000 and $24,000 following promotions. Three people in Mr. Austin's office didn't change jobs, yet they got pretty hefty increases - ranging from $14,000 to $21,000. Mr. Austin also added two positions, one at $101,000 and another at $63,000.
On top of that, City Council approved on average a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment for employees every year, along with merit raises of up to 2.5 percent. The council didn't stop the cost-of-living raises until the current year's budget.
We'd like to think officials would have acted differently with better financial information. Due to inexcusably poor bookkeeping and accounting practices, city leaders had no idea what the city was taking in or spending as they built a workforce they couldn't afford.
Some of this might have been averted had the city implemented Mr. Austin's 2006 proposal to replace automatic cost-of-living raises with merit increases only. Not only could the move have saved the city money, but it would have raised the level of expectation for all employees; they would no longer be compensated for simply showing up to work.
We don't relish the idea of anyone losing pay or a job, but it's clear the city must cut salaries and/or jobs. The council has resisted across-the-board salary cuts or mass layoffs. It wants to pay a firm up to $150,000 to conduct a study to tell it how to save money.
That's an unacceptable cop-out. It's the job of the council and its well-paid administrative staff, not a consultant, to make these sorts of decisions. Besides, Mr. Gantt said the city can't afford the study.
Spending what it didn't have is what got the city in this predicament. A study just delays the council making the hard financial decisions that other governments, private companies and citizens are having to make. City Council must nix this study and do its job.