Back in 2006, Columbus leaders thought it might take six or eight years or more to boost city workers' salaries to a level comparable to what similar organizations pay.
Now that goal may be only months away.
Mayor Jim Wetherington made a modest budget proposal Tuesday that would increase city expenditures for the 2009 fiscal year by only 2.55 percent over the current year's. The total budget would be $210,751,819. The budget council adopted last June for the 2008 fiscal year was $205.5 million, though total expenditures briefly shot up to $229.7 million at mid-year when councilors voted to spend $24 from city reserves on one-time equipment purchases such as cars, trucks and computers.
Under Wetherington's proposed budget, the better part of the increase for the next fiscal year would be in salaries, $4.5 million to take city workers' pay from what a University of Georgia study said was 98 percent of market pay to 100 percent.
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When Columbus first began implementing that pay plan in the 2007 fiscal year, city workers' pay was at what a study conducted by the university's Carl Vinson Institute of Government said was 81 percent of market. That year council pushed it to 92 percent, devoting $8.4 million to improving workers' pay. City leaders then thought it might take years to reach 100 percent, as workers would lose some ground each year as market pay increased beyond the study's time frame.
For example, workers' pay was in a sense increased to 100 percent last year, but that was the old goal of 100 percent, which by then already had slipped 2 percent behind the market. So in reality it was 98 percent.
Now it looks like reaching a true 100 percent goal could be just around the corner — or just around the corner and down the block, as the mayor proposes the city take this next step in the pay plan not when the 2009 fiscal year starts July 1, but a quarter of the way through it, on Oct. 1.
The mayor said skipping a quarter to kick in the raises would save the city money and keep the budget balanced.
Wetherington also proposes a longevity increase of 2.5 percent for each worker with two to nine years' experience and 5 percent for each veteran worker who has been with the city for 10 years or more.
Workers would see their health care costs increase, as $15 more per pay period would be deducted from their checks for health insurance. Though Wetherington's recommending pay raises for current employees, he's not proposing any increase for retired city workers.
The city has about 2,800 employees.
Columbus' general fund budget for city operations would bump up by 3.92 percent, under the mayor's proposal, from this year's $138,195,855 to $143,619,242. In that budget, he recommends funding seven new positions: two mechanics in fleet maintenance, a special enforcement officer, a carpenter, an appraiser for the tax assessor, a deputy clerk for the municipal court judge and a citizens services technician under the city manager.
The proposed budget requires no tax increases, so property tax rates would remain unchanged.
Now that Wetherington has made his budget presentation, Columbus' 10 councilors, meeting as the Budget Review Committee, will dig through it and recommend changes before its final adoption. Those meetings start next week.