Shawnee councilmembers clash over cutting city employees’ phone, car allowances in next budget

Shawnee city allowances

The Shawnee City Council in a Monday committee meeting discussed whether to do away with most employee allowances for cars and phones. Councilmember Eric Jenkins (above) and Councilmember Tammy Thomas, largely oppose cell phone allowances for all employees because they believe it is excessive spending.

As Shawnee prepares its annual budget for the coming fiscal year, some councilmembers on Monday proposed cutting allowances for some city employees’ vehicles and cell phones, while at the same time, expanding the city’s police force and lowering the city’s mill levy.

The suggestions prompted sometimes-heated debate during Monday’s meeting. The council’s consent on adding police officers was generally unanimous, but councilmembers had mixed feelings on the other items.

Ultimately, the council ran out of time to finish discussion before the city’s planning commission meeting began later that evening in the same room.

The city council will continue budget discussions at the next full city council committee meeting , scheduled for July 6, as well as the council meeting on July 12.

Here are the four primary areas of discussion at the committee meeting Monday:

  • Adding four police officers on top of the two additional officers already recommended by city staff, for a total of six new police officers
  • Eliminating employee cell phone allowances
  • Eliminating employee car allowances
  • Lowering the mill levy

Councilmember Kurt Knappen said the city is in good financial shape, with a proposed 42.4% ending balance in the city’s general fund for 2021.

He proposed the city slightly lower its mill levy, which currently stands at 26.501, to make sure the city collects only what is necessary in taxes to continue doing business.

Some councilmembers supported Knappen’s proposal to lower the mill levy, but Mayor Michelle Distler and other councilmembers pushed back, saying the city has large expenses coming up, such as improvements on two fire stations.

Distler also stressed that she supports lowering the mill levy while avoiding making drastic cuts to city services.

“Property values have been rising for several years, construction costs have skyrocketed over the past year, and we continue to deal with the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic,” Distler later told the Post. “As a city, we are making long-overdue renovations and improvements to our two oldest fire stations. We must budget in a way that continues to fully fund these and other projects that are already in the pipeline, even with the increases in construction costs. I continue to support lowering the mill levy, but we must ensure we are not sacrificing vital projects or services in order to save the average homeowner $3.65 a month.”

They also argued that the city’s economic future remains relatively uncertain with the COVID-19 pandemic’s rippling effects on the community continuing.

Clashes over phone, car allowances in budget discussion

Councilmember Lisa Larson-Bunnell said she supports ensuring city staff have access to a phone so that they can do their jobs.

Budget discussions at the council committee meeting grew tense at times, especially over the issue of employee allowances.

Councilmembers Eric Jenkins and Tammy Thomas had met with city staff June 8 to request discussion of the the phone and vehicle allowances. But they said they felt misrepresented and misunderstood by city staff when the original city memo for Monday’s committee meeting was published online.

Other councilmembers raised concern that Jenkins and Thomas met with city staff to request additional items without being allowed the opportunity to make their own suggestions or be privy to that conversation before Monday’s meeting.

At one point Monday, Jenkins and Councilmember Matt Zimmerman had a tense back-and-forth. Jenkins said city staff were “liars” because of how they presented the content of his and Thomas’ meeting with staff on June 8.

Thomas and Jenkins clarified that what they wanted to do was work to reduce excess city spending.

They both said they believied that most of the allowances for employee cars and cell phones are excessive and that cell phones are unnecessary for many city employees to do their work.

“I don’t think this is a difficult thing to fix,” Jenkins said. “I think we can get a laser focus down on this and determine who needs phones, who doesn’t need phones. This is not some blanket deal where everybody in the city gets a $65-a-month pay raise for phones. The taxpayers have got to pay for that, and everything we do in this community should be done through the lens of is it a benefit or value to the taxpayer.”

Some councilmembers pushed back against the elimination of cell phone and car allowances for employees, particularly because allowances are stipulated in employee contracts.

City staff during the COVID-19 pandemic have migrated away from the use of landline desk phones and city-issued cell phones for employees.

“I think a lot of our workers do actually need some type of phone, whether it’s a desk phone or something, they need something,” said Councilmember Lisa Larson-Bunnell. “And if we’ve literally, physically gotten rid of the phones, and this is what they’re using instead, that’s sort of the point that I was trying to make before.”

City staff estimate eliminating all but five current cell phone allowances would create a savings of about $258,000 and affect 321 employees.

Additionally, eliminating the employee car allowances would save about $91,000 and affect 17 employees.

In other news

The city council also discussed the addition of an assistant city attorney who could manage contracts for the city.

The council ran out of time to finish this discussion, but most members were generally in favor of ensuring that the city had professional staff to oversee contract management.

Also up for discussion were the city staff’s options for possibly taking over administration of the Shawnee Storm, a Special Olympics team run by volunteers and families in and near Shawnee.

Councilmember Larson-Bunnell, who has recently requested that city staff explore this item to include it in the annual budget, has asked this item be discussed during a future council meeting.

Click here to see a copy of the city memo on the budget. A recording of the meeting can be accessed below. Discussion begins at 17:32.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional comments from the mayor regarding the mill levy.