Cape wages low compared to other cities

Sunday, May 26, 2002

Cape Girardeau may be in a financial quagmire, but it can't be tracked to inflated employee salaries, at least in comparison to similar cities.

Based on numbers gathered by the Southeast Missourian from five other cities, Cape Girardeau's average salaries seem moderately low but reasonably competitive.

In light of a 3/4-cent sales tax increase recommended by a special revenue team to stop the dipping into city reserves, concerned residents, city council members and business leaders have said they would like to compare Cape Girardeau to other cities to gauge whether the city is being run efficiently.

Personnel costs make up the biggest portion of most cities' budgets. Assistant city manager Walter Denton said some of the $6 million generated by an increased sales tax would go toward personnel expenditures.

New councilwoman Evelyn Boardman said she has talked to 50 people of different ages and income levels about the potential tax increase. She said people are in favor of paying city employees more and providing them with better facilities and equipment to do their jobs, but they don't want to pay more taxes.

"Of course everybody agrees that we need to keep our city services and give employees raises," she said. "But of course, no one wants to be taxed."

Dane Stausing, a deputy for the Scott County Sheriff's Department, knows firsthand of the salary issues facing Cape Girardeau. He is a former Cape Girardeau police officer.

After two years in Scott County, he is earning what a Cape Girardeau corporal would make after five years of service.

"What these guys have to do, working 12-hour shifts, they're not paid enough," said Stausing.

Stausing's wife, Julie, is a former Cape Girardeau dispatcher.

"The dispatchers at Cape Girardeau are grossly underpaid," she said.

Public safety salaries close

Cape Girardeau's employee salaries were very similar to those in Jefferson City, at least in terms of police and firefighters. The average annual salaries were less than $100 apart for public safety workers in the two cities, which differ by 4,000 residents in population.

But salaries for Jefferson City's department heads were much more than Cape Girardeau's. Gail Strope of the Jefferson City finance department estimated the average salary for a department head in her city at about $73,000, approximately $21,000 higher than in Cape Girardeau.

Because of its computer software, Jefferson City could not come up with an average salary of a typical maintenance worker in the public works or parks departments. However, three randomly selected salaries showed Jefferson City's highest-level maintenance workers made $34,900, $34,900 and $26,700, which are all higher than the average Maintenance III worker in Cape Girardeau, who makes approximately $21,653.

It is difficult to compare public works employees, city human resource directors say, because each city has different standards at which they set their pay scales.

Salary study suggestions

Two years ago, the Cape Girardeau ended a three-year program that raised the city employees' salaries. A study conducted in 1996 found that the city salaries here were on average 8 percent lower than those of other cities of similar size. The city of Cape Girardeau used Joplin, St. Joseph, Sedalia and Jefferson City to gauge salaries.

Raising salaries to a competitive average added $800,000 to $900,000 of recurring costs to the city's budget, city finance director John Richbourg said.

In addition to the raises phased in over three years, insurance costs have gone up, retirement benefits have increased and employees have been given step increases. The step, or cost of living, increases elevate salaries annually based on performance. They are capped after 10 years of service to the city.

As a result of tightening budgets, some employees who were not eligible for step increases have been given no monetary raises for the past three years. A 1 percent across-the-board raise is included in this year's proposed budget.

Jonesboro, Ark., is going through a similar process of raising its employees' salaries. Jonesboro, by far the most efficient city in the five-city comparison in terms of the number of city employees, has bumped up its payroll to be more competitive.

For a city with a population of 20,000 more residents than Cape Girardeau, Jonesboro spent almost exactly the same amount on payroll last year with approximately the same number of employees.

"Our administrative staff is one secretary, an administrative assistant and myself," said Jonesboro mayor Hubert Brodell. "We run a pretty tight ship. But last year we did a survey and brought everybody's salary up to what we call average. We looked at every position. We're not the highest and we're not the lowest. We're somewhere in the middle."

Comparing locally

Cape Girardeau's employee salaries are consistent with local income averages.

According to Missouri state census figures, the per capita income in Cape Girardeau County was $23,573 in 1998, the last time that figure was estimated.

The beginning salary for a firefighter in Cape Girardeau is below that level, and a police officer starts out at $222 more than the average income in the county. The average salary for a firefighter is $26,426, which is about $3,000 more than the county average, while the average police salary of $27,362 is $4,000 more than the local average. The Maintenance II worker makes an average of $21,507.

As far as other local city employee salaries, Perryville not only beats Cape Girardeau, it beats just about everybody. In Perryville, traffic officers' salaries range from $31,101 to $37,154, while patrolmen make from $30,256 to $36,021. Level II maintenance workers, the highest level in Perryville, make anywhere from $22,800 to $27,000 based on hourly wages.

"We've been fortunate to keep good people around a long period of time, and I'm sure salaries have something to do with that," Perryville mayor Robert Miget said, adding that the city tries to compete with local industries Gilster-Mary Lee and TG USA. "You have to take care of your people or you'll lose them."

In Sikeston, all public safety personnel make the same wages as they are all required to cross-train. Based on the amount of training, firefighters and police officers make anywhere from $24,264 to $26,312. A Maintenance II worker starts at about $18,000 in Sikeston.

bmiller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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