L&T Publisher Earl Watt
A small detail in a recent story about former Police Chief Al Sill’s contract may have slipped by most, but I believe it is a very important reason the City of Liberal needs to change its policies to provide proper oversight.
It was discovered during discussions on Sill’s contract that he, along with every other full time city employee, received a 65 cents per hour raise Nov. 26, 2017.
This raise had to do with an increase in the city’s health insurance coverage, and rather than pass on all of the increase to the staff, the city provided a raise to every employee to help cover the increase.
Here is where it gets a little sticky.
Because the budget had already been approved earlier in the year, and the raise would not put the cit over budget, requesting permission from the city commission was not required.
Basically, then City Manager Mark Hall gave the plan his approval, and just like that, more than $250,000 in increased annual salaries took place with no public notification or input whatsoever.
But it was just 65 cents, right?
Yes. Per hour. Times 40 hours per week, Times 52 weeks. Times 200 employees.
Just like that, you get up to a quarter of a million dollars.
Like every taxing entity, the city budget provided to the commissioners always has enough room in it to cover for unexpected expenses and emergencies, just in case.
The budget also plans for every department being fully staffed all year long.
But several positions have been open for years, specifically in law enforcement, meaning there would always be more salaries budgeted than are actually spent.
When the health insurance increase came, of course the city had budgeted to spend more than it was spending, and so it was easy to simply use some of that money to increase all full time salaries.
The problem is, the local economy is hurting with the exodus of oil and gas and decreased sales tax collections. Ag income is also down with grain piling up at the elevators and even on the ground.
And while everyone has been tightening their belts to find ways to make ends meet, increases like this one handed out by the city can be looked upon with disappointment when those who are providing the benefit — the taxpayers — can’t even afford to provide themselves with such benefits.
Insurance rates went up for virtually everyone, and while some had to make the choice of taking a vacation or paying the insurance premium, the city simply covered the cost at the taxpayer’s expense.
Just for the record, the increase was the equivalent of about 2 mills.
Let’s say that we all wanted to help pick up the extra cost for the city employees. A better way would have been to make a contribution to the overall pool, or increase the city’s share of the premium for a year, and then see if insurance rates come down in a year or two, or if they continue to rise. This way, if the costs come down, the city can still provide the benefit and save some money. Do you think if premiums come down that the city will have an across-the-board salary decrease of 65 cents per hour? Of course not, and that is why they should have put the money in the pool to reduce costs rather than increase salaries.
This is why public dicsussions and commission involvement is vital.
A suggestion for the city commission would be to pass a policy that any across-the-board pay increases will require commission approval.
Another would be to post on the city’s website the new contracts for the new chief of police and the interim city manager. This way, they are public, leaving no doubt as to what the arrangement will be moving forward.
If not, we will have to make open records requests and share them, but this commission seems to be more committed to transparency, and it would be good to see them provide the information without such a request.
So far, contracts for Hall, Sill and employee raises that did not require oversight from our elected officials have now cost the taxpayers about $750,000.
The good news is those involved are no longer in positions to do more harm.
But to prevent it in the future, the commission should design new policies that will protect the people.