A $1.1 million plan proposed by City Manager Nick Edwards to give Joplin city employees a 9% across-the-board pay increase was authorized informally Monday night by the City Council.
The pay proposal was recommended to the council by the city manager, the finance director, Leslie Haase, and a consultant, Sheila Maerz, of Segal Consulting. Maerz helped guide city officials through issues over pay and the pension and in the last few months conducted local and regional pay studies to help show the city where it ranked as a municipal employer.
The results of that pay study, Maerz said, put Joplin at 112% above the local market, which is reasonable because Joplin is surrounded by smaller cities. But the pay scales here were at 84% — 16% below — regional cities in Missouri, Arkansas and Kansas, she said.
She recommended that the city implement the 9% raises and then keep up the salary studies on a regular basis to stay competitive so that the city does not lapse into situations such as 2018. That is when a high number of police and firefighter turnover occurred that caused worker shortages and resulted in tense council meetings between the council, workers and residents.
"The background is important to understand," Edwards said. "Why is the city addressing pay?"
He said it is because the city has been facing recruiting and retention issues for several years. Shortages of workers have not solely affected public safety departments. The city has not been able to fill some positions because of pay levels. That is the city's No. 1 problem, Edwards said. In order for the city to give residents better services such as improved streets and neighborhood conditions, the key is attracting and retaining the best qualified employees with a competitive pay plan.
Edwards told the council the wage increase is "righting a wrong from 10 years. This is addressing past issues," when the city changed pay plans without fully funding those plans and then dropped plans and reverted to across-the-board 2% or 3% wage hikes instead of making consistent wage improvements. In some years, most recently 2015 and 2016, there were no raises.
The city manager said "political promises or statements" were made by council members and city administrators in the past to the public safety workers about wage increases. He thought it would be better for the council to set a policy for city pay and allow the administrators to determine the amount and funding mechanisms for those pay plans to keep the council out of political straits.
The city administration plans to fund the across-the-board plan with money set aside from revenue made available in the city's general fund by Proposition B. That proposition was approved by voters last fall to establish a half-cent sales tax that can be used to fully fund the existing insolvent Police and Firemen's Pension Fund and move eligible public safety workers to another pension fund if they choose.
A drive to solicit voter support of the proposition involved public safety workers and one council member, Charles "Chuck" Copple. He is a retired firefighter who co-chaired the Proposition B Citizens Task Force to seek voter support of the sales tax.
Copple cast the lone vote against the pay proposal on Monday. Seven were in favor of the motion by Gary Shaw to approve the plan, and one, Mayor Ryan Stanley, was absent.
Copple told the city manager before the vote that for the past 10 years or more, city administrators have said that the city's biggest problem was the underfunded pension plan.
It was the work of off-duty public safety workers who aided the city in getting Prop B passed.
"We said we'll tackle it; you can't get it done, Copple said. "We got it done the first vote out of the gate. So the only reason you're saying pay is the No. 1 problem you have right now is because we already defeated your No. 1 problem before you got here. But with that, there was you called them political promises, and it wasn't to give police and fire raises. It was giving raises to key departments that were having problems with recruitment and retention," including police and fire along with engineers and heavy equipment operators.
He said the raises are needed to avoid problems with public safety like the city experienced in 2018.
"Yep, those were political promises that were made, and we need to stand behind those promises," Copple said.
The city manager intends to implement the across-the-board increases Nov. 1 when the new budget year begins.