Council says no to furloughs during special meeting
Of all of the proposals Marshalltown City Administrator Jessica Kinser submitted to the city council during last week’s regular meeting to address a general fund deficit of approximately $312,000 heading into fiscal year 2024, the idea of mandated employee furlough days quickly proved to be the most controversial.
The council reconvened for a special session Monday night and revisited each of the 10 cost-saving or revenue-raising items, voting on several motions that will provide city staff with guidance on how to move forward come budget time. The furloughs were near the bottom of the list, and although they didn’t come up until over an hour into the meeting, they garnered strong opinions from councilors in front of a packed council chambers.
Councilor Mike Ladehoff quickly came out against the furloughs, which would constitute five mandatory days and save the city an estimated $79,215, as the conversation started Monday night, worrying that they would hit employees on the lower end of the wage scale the hardest.
The possibility of voluntary furlough days was slightly more popular, and Councilor Jeff Schneider asked about surveying staff to see which employees might be open to it. Another item on the list that was tied into the discussion was reducing the annual Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for non-union employees from three percent to two percent, and Councilor Gary Thompson shared his opposition to both proposals.
During the public comment period, Leigh Bauder urged the city to look more closely at defined contribution plans for health insurance, and Mark Eaton suggested utilizing money from the Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) fund.
Thompson then motioned not to implement a COLA reduction, which would have saved an estimated $43,261, and it carried unanimously. From there, the discussion shifted back to furloughs, and Kinser clarified that the proposal would affect all city employees except police and fire union members and non-union police and fire supervisors.
Because all 10 of the proposals would actually put the city at about a $112,000 surplus, Councilor Barry Kell noted that even without furloughs, the budget could still be balanced. Thompson then alluded to some of the city employees in the audience and worried that they may be unfairly punished.
“For the lower people on the totem pole to be penalized because their bosses couldn’t balance a budget, I just can’t support that,” Thompson said. “I just think furloughs is a terrible plan. I think moving LOST in is a terrible plan because it doesn’t solve the problem. When are we gonna hold the city administrator and department heads accountable to balance the general fund budget?”
In response, Kinser said she would be happy to come back with a budget that eliminates positions, and she cited the “anxiety” that talk of furloughs has already created. She did, however, feel that furloughs could spread the pain more evenly rather than singling out individuals.
“From a philosophical standpoint, it’s looking at not trying to single out any department, any position, because I think every department head would tell you that they are understaffed,” Kinser said. “It’s looking to basically kind of share the cost in trying to cut a position across all departments. I get that that’s a philosophical decision that others will disagree with, but that’s ultimately what I felt was the most fair way to present it.”
Thompson then countered that there are more ways to balance the budget than eliminating positions, eventually suggesting that Kinser and department heads take pay cuts rather than causing their workers to lose wages. Mayor Joel Greer commented that employees were the city’s most important asset in keeping the community running smoothly, and Kinser said department heads have already “cut to the bone” when it comes to reducing operational expenses.
“We have been making changes as we go. It’s just unfortunate that we’re put in a situation where the taxable valuations just are not growing at a level that can keep up with the operations that we have. So we’re going to continue to see this deficit probably until there are structural changes,” Kinser said. “But I want you to know that we look for those opportunities every time there’s a possibility that we can take advantage and bring forward those recommendations.”
Ladehoff recalled his first tenure on the council back in the 1990s and noted that the city is currently operating with about 50 less employees than it had then even though its population has grown, according to Census data.
“Over the years, we’ve lost 25 percent of our employees, and we’re providing the same services. And that’s only due to one thing: our city employees are that good at figuring out how to make it work and how to get things done,” Ladehoff said. “So it’s not like we’ve got extra people floating around at all. We’ve got some damn good people, and when you get down to the bone, you’re at the bone. That’s it.”
Schneider mentioned the council’s long-term growth goals and how he hoped they would alleviate deficit discussions, and Councilor Gabe Isom said the overall discussion was more pleasant and fruitful than in past years.
Thompson moved to “drop” the furlough discussion and balance the budget solely with LOST dollars, but it failed by a 5-2 margin with Thompson and Al Hoop as the only affirmative votes. With no further motions made, the councilors reached a general consensus on removing furloughs from any future discussions on balancing the budget.
Contact Robert Maharry
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