Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Employee benefits sequel

Last year, the city council was very close to taking action on reforming city pensions and other benefits. We took some short term steps, like putting a hold on employee raises and longevity pay for the current fiscal year. However, we did not manage to take action on large scale reforms; instead opting to have a study of pay and benefits (the Mercer study).

Study results

The study came back. It showed that in most areas city employees receive similar ("competitive") benefits compared to the other survey respondents. [Note that the study included mostly other local governments and governmental agencies. According to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, in 2008 total compensation, salary and benefits, for state and local workers was $39.25 an hour — $11.90 more than in private business.]

There were a number of areas where we were more generous ("highly competitive"):
  • paying longevity (in essence a pay raise based on years worked)
  • leave accrual
  • spousal benefits for retirement
  • and calculation of salary for pension (two year vs five year averaging).
Our benefits were poor ("non-competitive") compared to other survey participants in
  • employee health insurance costs
  • and the types of health insurance we offer.
Additionally, our salary ranges for most jobs compared poorly to the other respondents.

We knew going into the study the areas where we were "highly competitive"--I had urged changes in these areas last May. (For a discussion on these changes, see my May blog post. I had not included changes to longevity in that proposal, since the then-proposed FY2010 froze longevity.)

The Proposal

Now that the study is back, it is time to take action. On Tuesday (today), we will have a special committee meeting at 4 pm to respond to the city manager's proposal for reforming employee pay and benefits. The proposal, roughly is:
  • no pay increases for FY 2011
  • eliminating longevity
  • capping leave accrual and paying out excess over two years
  • change spousal benefits for new employees
  • switch to five year averaging for calculating pensions
  • strive to increase city's contribution to health insurance premiums.
This proposal is responsive to the study results.

Retirement and leave accrual
The proposals regarding retirement benefits and leave accrual largely mirror the suggestions I made last May. The main difference from my suggestion last year is making the spousal benefit change only apply to new employees, leaving current employees with the spousal benefits they anticipate.

Longevity freeze and salary range adjustment
In addition to the retirement and leave changes, the proposal includes abolishing longevity going forward, rather than freezing it. With that change, also, there would be a change in the maximum of all salary ranges by 10%. Currently, an employee's longevity pay is over and above the salary range for their job. This change will bring most of our pay ranges into line with other survey participants (though it will not have an effect on our current budget since it won't change the pay of individual employees).

Health insurance
The other addition to the proposal for discussion Tuesday beyond what was proposed last year is a response to health insurance. The proposal is to gradually increase the city's contribution to family health insurance from the current 55% toward the 72% average of the survey participants. While health insurance gets into some big political philosophy questions (hence the national debate), it is desirable to have insured employees for a variety of reasons. This is simply setting a goal, and we will annually need to work toward that goal when we renew our health insurance program.

Time for Action

As I've said before, it is hard to look at our hardworking, dedicated employees and say, "We can't give you what we want to give you, what we think your effort is worth, because the taxpayers can't afford it." On the other hand, I don't want to look at our taxpayers and say, "Sorry. Couldn't do it. We can't handle the hard decisions."

We are in the midst of one of the worst economic downturns in history. Businesses throughout our community are laying off employees, forcing furloughs, or instituting pay cuts. Our citizens are facing double-digit unemployment. In better times, councils of the past have responded to the economic situation, sometimes raising salaries or benefits in order to attract qualified employees. This council, too, must be responsive to the economic situation, the challenges our local businesses and citizens are facing.

I am ready to act, and I hope that my fellow council members are ready, as well. We need your feedback on this issue so we know that we are making the right decision on this challenging issue. I know we will hear from the employees; I hope we will hear from other taxpayers as well.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Bryant Park Survey

I have posted previously about the effort to turn Bryant Park (around the new Tryon library) into a natural playground. We are making some progress (I'll admit, slower than I had hoped) and have learned a lot about how to do it.

For a variety of reasons, at this point we are leaning toward a hybrid playground, combining natural elements and purchased equipment. I've sat in meetings with various staff members, and we have each responded to the elements ourselves. But it has been a long time since most of us have really played on a playground....

So we decided to bring the decision making to the users, the kids of our community. We are having a workshop for kids who live near the park to give them an opportunity to give their feedback. Since this park will attract more than neighborhood kids, particularly with the adjacent library, I want to expand the input. However, a room full of a hundred kids is daunting. So I've decided to use modern technology....

Below is a slideshow of elements that might be included in the park (some of the more natural ones might be modified from what you see, but just trying to convey the idea). I have also created an online survey. (An apology on the survey--they don't have a "rank" tool, where you could rank things by numbering them, so I created it as a grid. Then it wouldn't let me have everything in the grid, so I split it into two. Sorry for the challenges.) Survey questions correspond approximately to page numbers of the slide. Feel free to provide feedback via email as well--the survey just might make data collection easier.

Of course, we won't just buy the top five vote getters--we will need to consider the budget, space, and other issues. This survey is more to get a sense of what kids really respond to. I also welcome adult feedback. Kids are not always the best at self-reflection--my five year old looked through the images and wanted everything. I have tried to group items, so perhaps look at it as choosing among two directions--wooden stump seating or sculpted plastic, for instance.

I look forward to your feedback.


Click here to take survey

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

City boards

From time to time, the city council is asked to fill vacancies on our boards. These boards run the gamut, from parks to pensions. Rather than ask every time, I was hoping to generate a list of folks who have an interest in serving. I would like to broaden the potential nominees so that we can ensure that our boards are staffed with thoughtful, informed people who will help move this city forward. [We are looking for nominees for the Parks and Recreation Board and the Construction Board of Adjustments and Appeal, due on Friday, if you are interested....]

Please look over the list of boards, and let me know if there are any that appeal to you. Also, please let me know a little bit about you (perhaps a resume) so that I will be able to share it with council when making a nomination. You do not necessarily need a particular expertise to be on some of the boards, but a word or two about your interest in that board would be welcome. Rest assured that I won't nominate you without double-checking with you when a vacancy arises--I understand how life changes and something that might seem like a good idea at the time might not work well later.
Let me know if any of these boards appeal to you, or if you have any questions about them. Thanks for your willingness to serve.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Community Initiatives Program

One of the programs the city has that has a direct impact on our neighborhoods is the community initiatives program. This program allows neighborhood associations to receive funding for projects that will improve their neighborhoods. To insure that the neighborhood has commitment to the project as well, the city only contributes 50% of the project cost. There are additional limitations on the type of project, but we still see a range of activities.

The council recently approved the grants for this year:

Bay Oak Villas - Entry lighting
Cordova Park - Sod for soccer field
Longwood - Enhance entry signage area
North Hill - Banner project, phase 2
Northeast - Replace entry sign
Sanders Beach - Entry signage
Summer Lakes - Gazebo and lighting

Once I learned about this grant program, I began to see the products of the program as I drove around town. Many neighborhoods have entry signs or enhanced landscaping so that you have a sense of arrival. Others have parks with additional amenities, such as gazebos, that were developed by the neighborhood association.

Partnerships like this between neighborhoods and the city are a great vehicle for the city to ensure that the needs of neighborhoods are met. Look around your neighborhood and see if there are some specific needs that we can help you meet. Let me know if you have questions about what kinds of projects are acceptable, and I'll find out. With your input, the city can address your needs most directly.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Port security grant

The council was recently informed that the port was successful in a grant from the FEMA Port Security Grant Program. We have been awarded over $1.6M for a number of projects:

1. The city will create the infrastructure to improve communications via telephone and video conferencing during an emergency.
2. The grant will support the purchase of additional data storage capacity to duplicate city data.
3. Fiber optic cable will be routed to most community and recreation centers to provide meeting places for citizens and alternate work locations for city personnel.
4. The city will purchase Voice Over IP systems to replace the existing phone system for city departments.
5. The grant will support improved training for emergencies for all departments.
6. The port will develop a continuity of operations plan to ensure maritime commerce is maintained after an incident.
7. ESP will receive facility security surveillance.

If you notice, only one of the items is port-specific. It is interesting to note that this grant is going to provide a great boost to our emergency operations while also upgrading our infrastructure across most departments, but we would not have received it if we didn't have a port. While we often try to keep various pots of money separate, the city is a complicated organism--the accountant's spreadsheets only can tell a portion of the story.

I am pleased that the city was successful on this grant. These infrastructure improvements will increase our safety after storms. In addition, elements like the VoIP system will improve our day-to-day operations and reduce future costs. Currently, capital improvements in the city are primarily limited to funding from the local option sales tax and grants like this. Sometimes it is necessary to spend money to save money, and this grant will help us do that.