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City Beat: Council favors retention pay for police, fire, health staff

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American Rescue Plan Act funds could soon be used to provide retention pay for all full-time employees of Springfield’s police, fire and health departments.

City Council approved a resolution at its Nov. 15 meeting to recommend the ARPA Review Committee give $6,000 retention pay apiece to employees over a three-year period.

Council’s action allows City Manager Jason Gage to begin negotiating with city employee unions as the first step toward issuing the retention pay to the more than 750 eligible employees.

The resolution states the pay is anticipated as a lump sum of $2,000 in the first year and the remainder divided as equal payments in each pay period throughout years two and three. If an agreement is reached by the end of 2021, the first lump-sum payment would be made in the first quarter of 2022.

Councilperson Matthew Simpson said in a citizen survey on the preferred use of ARPA funds, the top priority by a wide margin was public safety and crime prevention.

Simpson added the committee members felt retention pay was important and timely to keep first responders on the job.

Gage estimated the net cost at $4 million, and with the impact on Social Security and other benefits, the total cost would approach $6 million.

Councilperson Craig Hosmer raised a concern about the allocation of the roughly $40 million in ARPA funds allocated to the city. He asked if council’s intention was to piecemeal the future appropriations.

While Hosmer said he was all for retention pay, it poses a difficulty for council members when they don’t know what other proposals have been submitted.

“I think it sort of is counter to what we talked about initially,” he said, referring to a council agreement in principle to consider all funding proposals submitted before allocating any funds.

Factoring the retention pay, Hosmer said $14 million of the $40 million will have been earmarked.

Rehiring retirees
Chronic personnel shortages in Springfield’s police and fire departments could be remedied in part by permitting the rehiring of retired officers and firefighters. 

Council heard the first reading of a bill that would allow rehires, a practice that is currently disallowed under the retirement system. 

The move would amend the city’s code as it pertains to the Police Officers’ and Firefighters’ Retirement System. 

The proposed addition to the code states that a former employee receiving retirement benefits after 25 years of service may be rehired or reinstated by the city and continue or commence to receive the benefits.  

“Their reemployment by the city shall not prevent in-service distribution of the normal service retirement benefits,” the suggested language states. In-service distributions would not be permitted for rehired or reinstated former employees who do not have 25 years of service. 

Rehired or reinstated employees would not earn additional benefits or service credit under the plan, but they would continue to receive retirement pay while working. 

Retirees could be rehired at the position they vacated, though that would be controlled by a competitive process, including testing for certain positions. They could alternately be hired for other positions within the department or the city. 

The Police Department has 47 vacancies among sworn officers, out of a full staffing level of 368, with 16 vacancies among nonsworn personnel out of a full staffing level of 85, according to city spokesperson Cora Scott. The Fire Department, with 227 sworn positions and nine civilian posts, has nine vacancies.

Lance Roskens, assistant city attorney, explained the proposed change, saying the ability to work for the city after retirement does not currently exist. 

Councilperson Richard Ollis cautioned the process would have to be a quick one. 

Hosmer expressed his support for the bill. 

“The process hopefully will be to try to catch some of those officers that have retired to fill that gap of 40 officers or 50 officers that we’re short,” he said. “We lost 400 years of experience in 2020 from officers who retired.” 

Added Hosmer, “I hope that as a city we are very aggressive in communicating this to officers that are either about to retire or have recently retired, because we need their help back in the city. We need to be at full staff so that we can deal with the problems that the city needs to deal with.” 

Other action items

  • Three speakers representing the Rountree and Delaware neighborhoods expressed a desire for help from the city in curbing violent crime following an attack of a woman in the 1100 block of East Meadowmere Street in the Delaware neighborhood Nov. 8.

Rountree Neighborhood Association President Mike Brothers spoke of the anger and cynicism he is starting to feel after a series of crimes in the area.

“I’m starting to feel cynical about our ability as a community to do something about these trends that we’ve talked about tonight that seemingly feel a little intractable,” he said.

Susan Brummell Belcher offered two requests to council: a continued and heightened police presence in the neighborhoods and the installation of understory lighting with funding help from residents.

  • Two neighbors of an abandoned house at 1011 W. Walnut St. asked council to intervene after decades of violations on the property.

Gage said the city is aware of the property, noting, “Basically, we have an owner who’s repaired items on the cheap in an ugly way.”

Gage added that from a legal perspective, the city cannot address “ugly,” but there are other aspects of the problem that can be addressed. Currently, the city is looking at the house as a dangerous structure.

The Greene County Assessor’s office lists one property owner as Wilbur L. Adam.

Gage said the city is working to improve a few thousand nuisance properties, some of them close to the level of the Walnut Street house.

Mayor Ken McClure suggested a council study session to address the issue.

  • Council OK’d the establishment of the SGF Sports Community Improvement District by authorizing the city manager to execute an agreement among the city, the district and SGF Sports LLC, which will operate the Betty & Bobby Allison Sports Town complex, now under construction in northwest Springfield. The CID will enact a 1-cent sales tax on businesses within the 115-acre complex to pay back the city for its $2 million investment in the project.

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