Some last-minute drama preceded the Independence City Council's approval of the 2018-19 fiscal year budget – an amendment that drew thank-yous from some of the city's older retirees and another amendment that at least raised some eyebrows.
City Manager Zach Walker announced that the proposed retirees health care change, in which the pre-November 2009 retirees would pay a larger premium percentage share, equaling the share post-2009 retirees pay, would not take place. Council Member Curt Dougherty then received just enough support for his proposed amendment that eliminated eight supervisor or management positions in Power & Light – a move he estimated would save the city about $1 million this year.
The proposed budget is just more than $322 million, a 1.2 percent increase from fiscal year 2017-18
Dougherty's amendment was approved 4-3, with council members John Perkins, Mike Huff and Tom Van Camp (joining via video feed) in support. Perkins initially passed, then cast the final and decisive vote. Mayor Eileen Weir and Council Members Karen DeLuccie and Scott Roberson voted in dissent.
“I think it's too drastic a step without some study and discussion,” DeLuccie said. Roberson added that while wouldn't necessarily disagree with the proposal, he would have preferred to defer such a decision since the budget already was balanced.
The positions Dougherty listed were: economic planning and rates manager, utility project development manager, environmental health and safety environmental program supervisor, one of two existing safety and training specialists, three positions under the engineering supervisor (engineer III positions) and GIS (geographic information system) supervisor. None are union positions.
Dougherty said he reasoned that with the city contracting out rate studies, not burning coal anymore, producing very little of its own power and contracting out some other services as needed, the power utility could afford to be leaner in some areas. Such savings now could help stave rate increases, he said.
“It's never popular to get rid of a bunch of managers and supervisors,” Dougherty said. “We've got to make some hard decisions for the greater good.”
Dougherty said he consulted with Huff, a former transmission and distribution manager for IPL before he retired last year, on the roles of various positions in forming his proposal. Between contracting out and absorption from other positions, he said, some higher-paying positions could be cut without affecting the utility's essential operations.
Dougherty insisted he's not grinding any axe with the cuts.
“It's nothing personal; I wouldn't know their faces if they came up to me now,” he said. “We don't burn coal, it doesn't affect generation, doesn't affect power lines. But we need to make some serious cuts.”
The reverse on the retiree health care change means that pre-November 2009 retirees will maintain their 83/17 premium split between the city and retiree. Retirees after 2009 are on a separate plan with an 80/20 split, which Walker had proposed in attempt to better balance health-care costs. In appealing to city officials, some retirees said some former employees could ill-afford the additional burden.
Walker had said the proposed change would have saved the city about $95,000 this next year and $135,000 in subsequent years. To make up that $95,000, Walker said the city will defer some outside contracts to help update the city code online, as well as some technology improvement for city communications, and forego the upgrade in membership with the Missouri Municipal League. The $40,000 balance in projected savings, he said, can be worked out next year.
Walker said the MML membership upgrade was the hardest to stomach, but with Independence having two contracted lobbyists and some employees constantly monitoring legislation, the city's interests shouldn't suffer in Jefferson City.
“You've restored their faith, and you've taken the higher road,” retiree Chris Rohrs said after the council's unanimous approval of the health-care amendment.
Ultimately, Walker said, it came down to credibility with former employees.
“What's the city going to be saving versus what's going to be the consequences,” he said. “These employees retired under a certain set of rules, and we need to honor that.”