July 26, 2013 9:52:50 AM
Carl Smith - firstname.lastname@example.org
Aldermen face two significant issues as they approach budgetary planning for the upcoming fiscal year: looming internal turnovers and income gaps between city employees and those of comparable municipalities.
Starkville is a month and a half away from the Sept. 15 deadline for adopting a fiscal year budget and determining its operating millage. Hearings began Thursday with discussions between the audit and budget committee -- Mayor Parker Wiseman and the entire seven-person board of aldermen comprise the group -- and representatives from the city clerk's office, personnel department and information technology department.
IT Director Joel Clements and Personnel Director Randy Boyd submitted flat budgets -- significant funding increases were not sought -- while City Clerk Taylor Adams' requests fell slightly compared to the previous year. The committee accepted each proposal under advisement, but board discussions with department heads often touched on the city's ability to pay its employees and the expected turnover.
If the board tries to bridge the pay gap - aldermen have yet to commit to the issue - it will have to find monies from within its already-lean budget, new revenues or enact a slight millage increase. A tax hike has yet to be presented as a discussion point.
The city currently operates on a 20-mill ad valorem rate.
Starkville also has a number of veteran employees whose retirement could come within this or the next administration. Boyd estimated the city has at least 30 workers with at least 20 years of civic service. When experienced employees leave their posts, whether through retirement or because of pay issues, they not only create experience gaps in their areas of expertise, but they also take with them training costs invested by the city.
Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins, who has served on the city's budget committee numerous times in his 20-year career, immediately stood against the possibility of new taxes after Thursday's meeting.
"The board is going to have to look at the totality of the facts and the circumstances of all of the budget data, and make the most informed and conservative decision as to how we should proceed. Personally, I'm not in favor of any tax increase for any city services," he said. "I will make decisions as to how we should proceed based upon all the data that's before us after all the presentations are made. The board, as a whole, needs to consider all the budget requests, look at the revenue, look at the expenditures and make the decision that is in the best interest of the city without, hopefully, raising taxes."
Other representatives, including Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker and Ward 5 Alderman Scott Maynard, tempered discussions on tax hikes after the meeting, saying the multi-meeting budgetary process needs to first provide clarity on city departments' operating needs before the board makes any decisions on its revenue sources.
"I think it's too early (to discuss tax increases), but I would hope these meetings would be about getting all ideas on the table and not eliminating something because it's the easy thing to do. We need to discuss all of the options and have the best decision possible come out of these meetings," Walker said. "We're looking for every opportunity to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the city. We need to find a way to decrease the gap of compensation for our employees. That's going to be a monumental task. Everyone in here is trying to do what's right."
"If we're going to address these issues, revenue is going to have to be identified either through the existing budget or through existing sources," Maynard added. "This is the first step in a long process."
Room for improvement
A 2012 salary study conducted by Mississippi State University's John C. Stennis Institute of Government showed 42 of 54 local city government jobs pay less than the mean salary tallied from 30 municipal respondents in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana Mississippi and Texas.
Maynard released a 2013 salary study to the Dispatch Thursday which compared 20 Starkville jobs' pay rates with other Mississippi municipalities' salaries. The document shows 15 local jobs, ranging from sanitation laborer to police sergeant, earn less than their state peers. Only Starkville's sanitation drivers, its police chief, city engineer, IT manager and human resources director earn more than the average of study respondents.
"Employee compensation ... is certainly one of the most significant challenges facing us as a whole. It's an area that's impacting virtually every aspect of our operation and every employee of the city," said Boyd, whose department functions as the city's human resources division."
Maynard, who chairs the budget committee, asked Boyd if succession planning or leadership training would help bolster the city's ranks as it faces turnover in the future, but the personnel director said staffing constraints prevent understudy grooming. The city also must abide by hiring practices set by state law.
"Our staffing budgets are extremely limited," Boyd said. "In most departments, we don't have the luxury of that aspect."
Improving IT infrastructure
Even with a flat budget, Clements is confident his department can expand internal IT infrastructure and continue implementing free public Wi-Fi access in the city's public areas.
Free public Internet access went live through the downtown corridor after Starkville Electric Department began installing a fiber-optic network last year. The entire project is expected to create a loop between the SED building, Starkville Sportsplex and Mississippi State University.
Clements said the second phase of public Wi-Fi implementation will begin in the coming fiscal year and provide Internet access to users in the McKee Park and Sportsplex areas. Infrastructure and access points are expected to cost a combined $18,000.
The department will also continue investing in data backups in case of significant hardware losses.
Clements' is expected to spend $17,000 on storage, $15,000 on switches and network infrastructure and $6,500 on software. In the future, the IT department will continue investing in redundant, off-site data storage systems and infrastructure to ensure uninterrupted power for its archives. Document digitization efforts are also expected to continue along with planned public Wi-Fi phases.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch