It is easy to be caught by surprise when the City Council finally gets around to voting on the annual city budget.
The final vote always comes after much discussion and many long, nighttime meetings over three or so months with the final pre-vote meeting seeming to bring some consensus of what the council has tossed into the mix.
But once again on Wednesday evening, three of the nine City Council members – Justin Shields, Monica Vernon and Jerry McGrane — opted to use the council budget vote as theater and as symbolism which they knew would have no bearing on the majority’s vote to approve the budget.
It was the threesome’s chance to lodge a protest vote against City Manager Jim Prosser.
The new budget, approved on a 6-3 vote, adds 26 new employees, increasing the city’s total number of employees to 1,422.
The new budget is huge by Cedar Rapids city budget standards. The regular piece of the budget amounts to $392 million, but the flood fund portion of the budget adds another $359.5 million to the budget, raising the total size of the thing to $752 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
However, Shields, Vernon and McGrane rejected the budget over raises totaling $23,358 to two of the city’s top department heads, Conni Huber, human resources director, and Christine Butterfield, community development director.
The raises came outside the council’s budget deliberations as City Manager Jim Prosser has explained that he was bringing the department heads’ salaries in line with the other six department directors that report to Prosser and in line with salaries of such positions in 23 other cities in the Midwest.
On Wednesday evening, Prosser noted that the move to establish pay equity for the city’s department directors began two years ago, but got pushed aside by last summer’s flood and by the focus on flood recovery. That’s why the two raises came now.
Shields, Vernon and McGrane said they didn’t think Huber and Butterfield should have been singled out for special consideration — Huber’s raise was 15.8 percent and Butterfield’s, 10.2 percent — when the 400 or so other city employees not represented by bargaining units were getting just 2 percent raises and another 800-plus bargaining-unit employees were getting raises in the 3-percent range.
Shields wondered if Prosser had spent any time looking at other classes of city employees to see if their wages were in line with other cities.
Prosser said, in fact, the city does that on an ongoing basis.
Vernon, a business owner, said her employees aren’t given the luxury of a review of 23 other cities to justify where their salaries should be.
Council member Tom Podzimek said the issue was about “fair compensation” based on a review of many other cities. Podzimek wondered if the city really wanted to lose its top directors or if the city wanted to become a “second class city.”
In a moment unusual for him, Prosser got exercised. He said it was his decision to raise the salaries of two of his directors and if Shields or the council had a problem with it they could address it during his performance review. He said he had no difficulty defending the raises so that the salaries were in line with the city’s other department directors and other cities’ directors.
“If you don’t think I did it right, take it out of my salary,” Prosser said.
Shields came right back at Prosser: “Those comments don’t change my mind,” Shields said. “I don’t agree with singling out two employees.”
Shields and Vernon have been at public odds with the city manager.
In recent weeks, the two made a much-publicized attempt to hire a flood CEO that would sidestep Prosser and report directly to the council. McGrane agreed with them.
The council majority, though, dismissed the move out of hand, arguing that the city’s still-new council/manager government is designed with one top dog, the city manager, to report to the council. The council has agreed to hire a flood manager, but that manager will report to Prosser.
It is a City Hall election year.
Six of nine seats are up for a vote, including Shields’ District 5 seat and McGrane’s District 3 seat. Vernon, the District 2 council member, has been thinking of running for mayor.