Overland Park council members criticize city administration for furloughing part-time employees during pandemic

Bill Ebel retirement

Overland Park City Manager Bill Ebel's budget would have the city maintaining services and keeping its property tax rate steady — but dipping into reserves to make up for a significant expected drop in revenue. File photo.

Overland Park has furloughed 200 part-time employees and delayed raises for two months in an attempt to slash spending during the pandemic. But the actions taken last week by City Manager Bill Ebel have drawn criticism from three city council members who say they are unnecessarily harsh on working people and first responders who depend on those raises.

The council members – Faris Farassati, Gina Burke and Scott Hamblin – also said that even though Ebel has the authority to make those decisions without a council vote, the rest of the council should have been informed and consulted.

City officials confirmed the actions Tuesday, saying the part-time employees worked at the city’s two community centers and will be called back when it’s once again safe to reopen the buildings. The Matt Ross and Tomahawk Ridge community centers closed to the public March 15 as the county began stringent social distancing measure to reduce spread of COVID-19. About half of the furloughed part-timers agreed to stay on for another week to complete cleaning and maintenance work.

Those who worked during the last 10 weeks will still be paid for the two weeks from March 22 through April 4 in amounts based on their average weekly hours, according to a city summary of the furlough. The affected employees worked in a variety of positions such as fitness class instructors, front desk attendants and babysitting.

The city will try to find alternative work for as many furloughed employees as possible, said spokesman Sean Reilly. Those jobs might include planting and outdoor work at the city’s parks, the Arboretum, Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead and soccer complex, for example.

But Farassati said the city could have kept those workers by spending some of its reserve fund. The $40,000 every two-week pay period cost to the city should not be enough to break the bank, especially this early in what could be a long fight against COVID-19, he said. After the crisis is over, those workers could do extra to make up for the paid weeks off, he said.

He and Hamblin say they are also concerned about the delay in pay raises. Performance evaluations are typically done by the end of March, but this year that deadline has been extended to the end of April, Reilly said. As a result the city will hold off on scheduled pay increases for 60 days.

Hamblin said he’d first heard about the raise delay from first responders concerned about missing money they’d counted on. Some told him they only heard about the delay two days before the raises were supposed to go into effect.

No dollar figures were available on how much that action would save the city. But Hamblin and Farassati said first responders in particular shouldn’t have to deal with a loss of expected pay.

“They’re out there facing this thing on the front lines,” Hamblin said. “They’re still working their regular jobs, risking bringing (COVID-19) home.”

Hamblin suggested the first responders should be exempt from the raise delay, or perhaps get some kind of hazard pay. “They should be getting paid more, not less,” he said.

City bracing for sharp hit to sales tax revenue

Reilly said the pay actions were part of an extensive effort to find ways to conserve in the face of what is expected to be severely declining tax revenue. The closure of stores and Oak Park Mall are bound to have a big impact on the rest of this year’s budget, he said, adding that city officials will also be taking a hard look at construction projects scheduled for this year that could be put off.

But in a letter protesting the measures, Burke, Hamblin and Farassati said $50 million in the reserve fund should be able to take care of workers for a short time. “The role of government during such a time of need is not to create unemployment for the staff that have faithfully served the city for years,” said their letter, which also asked Ebel to reverse the action.

Farassati called out the tax incentives to developers as a possible driver of the decision. He said such things as tax increment financing, which uses future property tax revenue brought about by development improvements to pay some of the developers costs, has eaten away at Overland Park’s financial stability. He also asked whether some public financing plans could be put on hold instead of cutting paychecks.

He and Hamblin said they were reluctant to bring their concerns forward in a time of national crisis. “This crossed a line,” Farassati said.

Mayor Carl Gerlach said he did not sign off on the measures but supports them just the same. The city council approves the budget each year, but Ebel is in charge of making changes within it to be sure the city doesn’t overspend. Tax incentive packages are heavily regulated contracts, and putting them off open the city to legal action, he said.

The problem is right now no one knows how long the stay-home orders will last or how big an impact COVID-19 will have, Gerlach said.

“It’s a critical time and we’re just trying to make decisions based on as much as we know.”

He added that he was disappointed in the letter from Hamblin, Burke and Farassati, who has announced he is running for mayor. People need to come together to find solutions, Gerlach said.

“During crisis pandemics like we’re n right now people aren’t looking for political campaign rhetoric,” Gerlach said. “They’re looking for leadership.” Taking action on the budget now will help the city maintain a long run of financial stability and a top quality of life, he said.