COLUMBIA, Mo. - Just 22 percent of the city of Columbia's 1,385 employees make a salary considered competitive, according to an ABC 17 News analysis of city pay.
Employee groups have voiced concerns over pay in the city for years, citing the problem as a major reason people leave. The exodus of workers like electric linemen and firefighters over pay has created a shortage, potentially leaving the city vulnerable in cases of emergencies.
The analysis compared the salary of each city employee's hourly rate to the city's adopted pay scale. The scale dictates the minimum, midpoint and maximum amount each group of city employees should make, based on wages from across the country.
Out of the 1,385 people the city government employs, 305 of them make at or above the midpoint for hourly rate. The midpoint, which represents the 50th percentile for that job, is the mark City Manager Mike Matthes wanted to move all employees to after five years of working for the city.
Matthes told ABC 17 News he was not surprised to hear that number, and said he was concerned about the city's inability to compete was bringing down morale. Matthes blamed the lack of raises on declining sales tax revenue, which he claims will cause a budget shortfall for 2019. He has suggested a quarter-an-hour raise for next year's budget, but doing so required them to cut from each line.
"For me to recommend a budget that will give the kind of raises people would like, it would require the complete elimination of a department," Matthes said.
Matthes said his proposed cuts for 2019 has him considering a "priority-based" budget for 2020. That involves the community ranking each department by most important to fund to least.
"Someone's going to have to be least important, and that's always a tough, tough thing to say," Matthes said.
The city's pay policy, adopted by the Columbia City Council in 2013, calls for salaries to be "externally competitive" and "internally equitable." The pay scale system helps track the competitiveness of their salaries, Matthes said, but has not been updated in years due to a lack of funding. The last few updated pay scales gave some employees at the minimum of their pay range a boost, but did not get them closer to the midpoint.
Alan Mitchell, a police detective and president of the Columbia Police Officers' Association, said the scale changes have only compressed the salaries of people in the department. The raise promised for next year won't get him much closer.
"I have 15 years at the Police Department, and I am still below the midpoint," Mitchell said. "There is no hope for most of us to reach the midpoint even by retirement."
While the fire department has several lieutenants, captains and chief-level positions at the midpoint or above, no firefighter is paid above the midpoint for their position. Zach Privette, a "Firefighter II" and secretary/treasurer of the Columbia Professional Firefighters union, estimated that 10 to 20 firefighters have left the city for better wages.
"They're stuck in the middle of the pay scale, and they aren't moving," Privette said. "And that's frustrating to [union] members."
Matthes said the city only gives pay raises when it can afford to do so for all employees, keeping things "internally equitable" across departments. That stops people who do the same job in two different departments from making two different salaries.
Former workers at Columbia Water & Light said this interpretation of the policy is holding the department back. The department collects its money through utility bills, while others rely on general sources, like sales and property taxes. Jim Windsor, a former director of Water & Light, pointed out that 10 percent of the electric utility's budget goes toward personnel, while the fire department pays more than 80 percent. Windsor said a blanket raise policy also discourages workers to stay.
"[Raises] should be based on your performance evaluations," Windsor said. "If you have somebody that has shown the quality that someday they're going to be a leader in the organization, you need to reward them."
The city's budget must be approved by Oct. 1.
Union groups have criticized Matthes' handling of collective bargaining this year. Mitchell brought his complaints to the city council on July 2, claiming Matthes was dismissive of their ideas to fund potential raises for officers.
Matthes said he would suggest opening the doors on the collective bargaining process. The city council approved the current union contracts with police, fire and other laborers last year, the first contract for some of those groups. By opening up the usually closed meetings, Matthes said the public could hear all of the conversations from the start.
"It becomes a short conversation when there's no money," Matthes said. "The awkward part is we're figuring that out when we're having that conversation. When we start talking in January, we really don't know how much money there's going to be. We have a much better sense now, so when the answer is 'There's no money,' no one's happy."
Privette said allowing the city council to hear their ideas, rather than the negotiated contract, may be beneficial when they make a decision.
"I do believe they should see the whole picture, and make a decision on the whole picture, as opposed to one recommendation from the city manager."
Matthes will present the fiscal year 2019 budget next Friday.