Prairie Village council tussles over money budgeted for city staff raises

Prairie Village City Councilor Dan Runion. File photo.
Prairie Village City Councilor Dan Runion. File photo.

A debate that started earlier this month about the growth rate of the Prairie Village budget and how the city compensates its employees got emotional on Monday.

The evening’s conflict started when Councilor Dan Runion chastised Mayor Laura Wassmer for having sent an email to seven of the 12 members of the council — from which Runion was excluded — in which she asked for support for the inclusion of money to raise staff salaries in the 2017 budget.

At the July 5 meeting, Runion asked a series of questions about the rate of the city’s annual budget growth, suggesting it was unsustainable. In response to the inclusion of the merit pool increase in this year’s proposed budget, Runion said he had seen no evidence that current staff pay levels were leading to staff turnover.

In Wassmer’s email, which was sent to councilors Ted Odell, Sheila Myers, Courtney McFadden, Steve Noll, Ashley Weaver, Brooke Morehead and Terrence Gallagher on July 14, the mayor said she got the sense after the July 5 meeting that staff morale had taken a hit from the discussion about whether pay increases were justified.

“Most of us know that we have one of the most talented, ethical, and productive staffs in the area,” Wassmer wrote. “I’m getting nervous we are going to lose them if we don’t start supporting them. I need to ask for your support at our next council meeting — and the ones to follow. They need you to voice your support and to shut down some of this nonsense.”

The email is copied at the end of this post in its entirety.

On Monday, Runion read a prepared statement suggesting that his questions about the budget growth were asked with the intent of ensuring transparent governing practices and that Wassmer’s decision to email a select group of councilmembers may have violated open meetings laws and did not foster the sense of collegiality that should be the governing body’s goal.

“I have made clear I am only seeking to understand how the budget was reached, yet I am being accused of attacking staff,” Runion said. “It is my responsibility as a councilmember to ensure taxpayer money is spent appropriately. I am greatly concerned that the mayor is interfering with that process. I am concerned about the divisive effects of the email.”

In the discussion that followed, several staff leaders, including Finance Director Lisa Santa Maria, Police Chief Tim Schwartzkopf, Assistant City Administrator Wes Jordan and City Administrator Quinn Bennion, told the council about the challenges they face attracting and retaining staff, and made the case that having the ability to give high-performing staff members raises was important to reducing turnover. Santa Maria noted that the average merit pool for neighboring cities was higher than Prairie Village’s budgeted increase at 3.56 percent.

But some members of the council pushed back that without a clearer sense of the market for what other cities pay their staff, if was difficult to determine whether certain salary increases were justified. Councilor Eric Mikkelson lobbied for a salary survey that would give the council a better picture of the competitive market for city staff. Wassmer noted that such a survey had been conducted by the city years ago, and it found that most staff were underpaid, an issue that caused hard feelings among employees at the time.

The slides Santa Maria prepared for the council to illustrate the city’s budget growth and detail the proposed merit pool increase are below. The council will have to formally adopt this year’s budget at its first meeting in August.