Humboldt competes by raising pay

Humboldt city council members raised the base pay for city employees to $15 an hour to better compete with other communities.

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August 11, 2021 - 10:02 AM

Humboldt City Administrator Cole Herder shows the deterioration of the city’s water pipes. Photo by Susan Lynn / Iola Register

HUMBOLDT — Humboldt council members raised the base pay for city employees from $11.84 an hour to $15 an hour at their meeting Monday evening.

The increase “puts us back into a place where the city is a viable option to earn a living wage,” said Paul Cloutier, council member.

Increasingly, the city has been losing employees to better-paying jobs, said Cole Herder, city administrator, “for which I can’t blame them. I can’t blame anybody looking for work elsewhere to earn more money.” 

The city currently has five openings on its maintenance crew.

Cloutier said the significant increase makes Humboldt competitive against not only local markets, but across the state. 

Bruce Boettcher of BG Consultants addresses Humboldt City Council.Photo by Susan Lynn

Mayor Nobby Davis said, “Our take-home pay has been our weakest link,” but defended its benefits, including fully paid health insurance for employees.

Council members said they are prepared for what they expect will be some blowback from current employees who, after several years with the city, now make in the neighborhood of $15-$16 an hour.

“We will look at those rates as well,” Herder said.

Cloutier added, “But that’s a separate discussion. Our most important problem is a lack of city employees.”

Herder said the city has had to rely on contract labor to fill the gaps, which can cost as much as $50 an hour.

HERDER presented the 2022 budget. As compared to last year, the budget has increased by 24%, from $4,096,160 to $5,096,377, partly in order to accommodate a sky-high gas bill.

A frigid week in February incurred a monthly $1.6 million gas bill from the Kansas Municipal Gas Agency, which provides the city’s natural gas. Typically, February’s gas bill averages around $35,000.

To pay the charge, the state loaned the city $1.5 million.

On July 1, the city began making biannual payments of $75,945.58, which it is on schedule to make over the next 10 years. To help make ends meet, city gas rates increased by 60%, from $3.39 a unit to $5.39 a unit. Households typically consume anywhere from 10 to 60 units a month, Herder has said.

Herder cast the budget as good news in the sense that the city is not increasing its mill levy. An increase in property valuations helps with that.

Last year, the assessed value of private property increased by $484,775 (4.9%), from $9,894,864 to $10,379,639 which will increase revenue at the same mill rate. The difference to the city will be an additional $40,000, Herder said.

Council members approved the budget for publication. A budget hearing is at 6 p.m. Sept. 13.

THE NEW water line project grew from about $11.3 million to about $13 million Monday. In addition to replacing water mains and lines, about $1.26 million in needed upgrades to the water plant were included.

Herder said these repairs are beyond the scope of city crews.

After studying the issue for more than four years, council members agreed it was time to bite the bullet and gave Bruce Boettcher of BG Consultants the go-ahead to see what kind of loans and grants would be available.

If the stars align, in five years’ time the city’s water distribution, treatment and storage systems should all be either replaced or upgraded. 

Herder said he looked forward to the day when water line repairs are a thing of the past, “just as has happened since the city replaced its gas lines in the 1980s. Now, we very seldom ever work on a gas line. Any gas line work today is typically above ground, say as when a gas meter gets hit.”

Over the last four years, 169 repairs to water lines have been made, Boettcher said. 

“If we don’t address this now, it’s only a matter of time before we have to hire more people to do repairs,” Cloutier said.

Crews will replace the galvanized steel pipes with polyethylene plastic.

Payments on the project are estimated to be about $500,000 a year. To help prepare a reserve for that debt, water rates will likely increase the first of the year. Most households can expect about a $20 a month increase for water usage, he said. The city has 965 households and businesses actively using water, Herder said.

Boettcher said Humboldt’s good diversity of residential and industrial consumers play in its favor when it comes to securing loans and grants. 

IN OTHER news, the city closed its municipal swimming pool on Saturday, slightly ahead of schedule. Herder cited a “chlorine issue,” as well as difficulty in retaining lifeguards.

Chris Dean is the new water plant manager, Herder said. Dean’s background includes military service aboard a ship, Herder said, which has provided a working knowledge of such systems.

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