Recently, I celebrated a very special anniversary as January 15, 2023, was my one-year anniversary as the city manager for the City of Columbia. My first year in the position has been many things, including but not limited to, challenging, exciting, and extremely rewarding.
Many residents in Columbia may not know exactly what a city manager does. I have found this to be the case in most of the cities where I have lived and worked. Our city has a council-manager form of government that combines the political leadership of elected officials with the managerial experience of an appointed professional manager. The city council serves as the city’s primary legislative body and appoints a city manager to oversee day-to-day municipal operations, draft budgets, submit policy recommendations for programs and priorities, and to implement and enforce the council’s policy and legislative initiatives.
At the risk of oversimplifying things, every first and third Monday of the month, our elected city council sets priorities and it is then my job to direct staff on how to accomplish them.
As someone who has been in the city management profession for over 25 years, and has worked in many different places, I can say Columbia is a truly special place. I know what you are thinking; every city manager is supposed to say that about their city and, hopefully, they do. But I truly feel this community is unique. We have a particularly engaged citizenry — and a very passionate one as well. We have citizens that believe in service and are willing to put in their time and efforts to help this community be successful. Just like them, I am also passionate about making this community the best place it can be.
As I reflect back on what has been accomplished during my first year, there are a few projects that stand out as a small step in this direction, and as I look forward to the coming years as Columbia’s city manager there are several more areas I would like to see the city focus on.
When I stepped into this role I knew one of my main focuses needed to be tackling staffing at the city from all angles. The city of Columbia is lucky to have one of the most dedicated groups of employees. Many have served long careers to provide the highest level of service to our citizens and I will be the first to say public service is not easy.
Unfortunately, financial difficulties initiated by economic downturns have caused employees’ pay to begin to lag the market. Just like many organizations in the last few years, many of our most senior employees began to leave due to retirement, and currently, more than 200 members of our workforce are eligible to retire in the next five years. Additionally, Columbia has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Missouri which has made recruiting for vacant positions even more challenging.
Even members of the city’s executive team were impacted by retirements and departures. In January of last year, the city had five vacant department director positions, leaving gaps in our leadership team and employees in those departments felt a sense of unease. After extensive searches, we were able to fill positions with skilled and passionate employees. In our process, we found that our homegrown staff was both the most qualified and the best fit for those positions.
Employees are our most valuable resource, which is why in my first meeting with city employees I pledged to put them first. In response to employees’ dedication during the COVID-19 pandemic, we provided retention pay for those who continued to provide service to Columbia residents during unprecedented times. As part of a mid-year adjustment, city employees also received a raise across the board of 3 percent and then another 4 percent at the beginning of the current fiscal year.
These immediate actions helped retain the skilled staff we currently have, but the reality is the city is not competitive. Many of our salaries are below the market and we continue to struggle to recruit new employees.
In January 2022, the city hired a consultant to perform a comprehensive analysis of salaries and benefits. Members of our staff have had the opportunity to meet with the consultant to discuss their concerns and provide feedback on what is important to them. The consultant has conducted a comparative review of similar cities and private sector organizations to help us establish salary ranges that would allow us to be competitive in the market.
That study is on schedule to be completed before fiscal year 2024 and my hope is the recommendations will help us adjust wages and implement pay philosophies that will make us the employer of choice in Columbia.
Another primary challenge facing the city, and something I focused on in my first year, is helping our most vulnerable citizens. One of my first city council meetings as city manager was a memorable one. The council chamber was full of residents who were there expressing the community’s need for shelter for individuals experiencing homelessness, pointing out harsh winter conditions and the lack of available overnight warming centers. While this is not a new problem in Columbia, it has become a priority of ours.
In October, the city purchased the Ashley Street Center, formerly VFW Post 280, for $865,000, which is currently serving as a permanent location for the overnight shelter, Room at the Inn (RATI). This shelter has served as a safe, warm place for people to get food and avoid sleeping in dangerous temperatures. In past years, the shelter used resources from local churches and changed locations from week to week, but now volunteers and employees at RATI have a permanent location to provide this necessary service to those citizens in need.
This center will continue to play a role in the larger plan to address this issue in Columbia, but we realize we cannot do this alone. As the Voluntary Action Center, Columbia Housing Authority, Room at the Inn, and other local organizations finalize plans for an Opportunity Campus, we will continue to look at how the Ashley Street Center can provide an interim location for some of these services.
Of course, as the city’s to-do list seems to be getting longer, there are many projects and initiatives that I could point out as highlights from my first 12 months as city manager. In the coming months, the city will continue to address staffing and social services, but our focus will also shift to include topics the community is already feeling — the effects of affordable housing, community violence and business development are all at the top of my mind.
My first year as city manager has provided me the opportunity to listen and learn, and I feel both equipped and motivated to tackle our biggest challenges with help along the way. Community members, local organizations, our business community, and of course, our city staff together will create the perfect recipe for success.