Rezoning Request approved and request for Classification and Compensation Study denied at Americus City Council Meeting

Published 8:10 pm Friday, May 20, 2022

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AMERICUS – At its regular meeting on Thursday, May 19, the Americus City Council opened up a public hearing to hear a rezoning request from Mark Simmons of De Soto, GA. According to Roger P. Willis, Chief Building Inspector for the City of Americus, Simmons wanted to change the zoning of Parcel #10-4-1 from R3 and C2, which is commercial, to a planned mixed-use district. In addition to this public hearing, the city council also heard from the city’s HR Director, Ola Terrell-Jordan, on the subject of a Classification and Compensation Study to be done by the Archer Company in the amount of $22,500, with any additional hours billed at $115 per hour.

Before those discussions took place, Americus Mayor Lee Kinnamon made a proclamation honoring Rick Hamilton as the Honorary Council Member.

During the public hearing, Willis explained that the parcel in question is the building that housed the original offices of Habitat For Humanity. During that time, according to Willis, the property was zoned as a mixed-use property. Willis went on to say that the property’s current owner, Mr. Simmons, had contacted his office about potential businesses and uses in the building. Willis went on to say that when he and his department realized that the building was a split-zoned property, he advised Simmons to rezone the property and get it into compliance with the city’s zoning ordinance so that it can be used as it was originally intended.

“This particular item went to the Planning Commission and they reviewed it,” Willis said. He added that the Planning Commission recommended that the rezoning be approved and that the owner, Mr. Simmons, has asked that Mayor Lee Kinnamon and the city council suspend the rules to requiring a second reading and to make a decision that evening.

Council Member Juanita Wilson asked Willis if this had already been discussed at length before. Willis replied that since it was a public hearing, they would have to open it up for citizens to speak out for or against the rezoning request.

Wilson replied that the council has not discussed this issue at all and that it should be added to the agenda and discussed during the meeting. Mayor Kinnamon stated that it was on the agenda at a previous meeting, but as a Public Hearing. City Attorney Jimmy Skipper added that it involves an ordinance amendment and that it wouldn’t be passed tonight unless there was unanimous consent.

Skipper added that the discussion on the matter can be both a public hearing and a first reading and that there is no rule one way or the other about that. “Whatever happens tonight. If you don’t vote on it tonight, it will be considered a first reading,” Skipper said. City Manager Diadra Powell replied to Wilson that while this issue wasn’t on the agenda as a public hearing at a previous meeting, it was on the agenda.

Kinnamon then asked for a show of hands as to who wanted to speak for and against Mr. Simmons’ request for the change of rezoning of his property. Mr. Simmons, who was at the meeting, responded and told the council that what he is trying to do is to create a non-profit, shared workspace. Simmons, who lives in De Soto, stated that the property he wants rezoned is at 601 W. Church St. in Americus and that he is using the old Habitat For Humanity building to create a non-profit center, which is turning more into a nurturing center, as in healthcare and other things. “I’m not changing the use of the building at all,” Simmons said. “It is still basically office space with an auditorium and a courtyard that can be used for seminars or conferences or events.”

Simmons went on to say that the building is mixed-use as in events and offices and he added that someone requested residency there. “It’s a mixed-use type of thing,” Simmons said. “I was already trying to do that with the C1, R3 split-use before the city had adopted the mixed-use ordinance, so I’m just trying to formalize it and make it easier for Roger and Amy to tell me what I can or can’t do.”

Being that no one spoke out against the rezoning, Kinnamon closed the public hearing. However, in a related subject, Willis reiterated to the council the rezoning request for Parcel 10-4-1 and that the owner (Simmons) is requesting a rezoning from R3 and C2 Commercial to Planned-Mixed-Use District (PMUD). “This really is just cleaning up the parcel,” Willis said. “I think when Habitat originally built that building, they used it that way and they split the zoning. They split the parcel. They had part of it residential and part of it commercial.” Willis went on to tell the council that Simmons has asked that he council suspend the rules for having to have a second reading on the issue and take action tonight.

Council Member Wilson made a motion to suspend the rules for a second reading on the matter and go ahead and vote on the rezoning request. Council Member Nicole Smith seconded the motion. The council voted and the motion to grant the rezoning request passed unanimously.

The council also heard from City of Americus HR Director Ola Terrell-Jordan, who explained at length the Classification and Compensation Study. Terrell-Jordan stated that this proposed study should be conducted by the Archer Company in the amount of $22,500, with any additional hours billed at $115 per hour. Terrell-Jordan also stated that the study consists of two parts: Classification and Compensation. She stated that the classification plan is a plan for making pay decisions that are reasonable in comparison to similar work in all areas of city government.

As standard practice in the city’s government, every five years, a compensation study takes place to determine whether or not the City of Americus pays its employees a competitive salary so that they will stay and not leave city employment. The cost of this study, which is $22,500, has already been approved as part of the city budget and Terrell-Jordan recommended that the city council approve the Archer Company as the company to carry out the study.

Terrell-Jordan’s goal in addressing the city council about the matter was to persuade it to approve the study to make sure that City of Americus employees are paid a competitive and proper salary. Terrell-Jordan stated that according to previous studies, the city’s turnover rate has been consistently high. “In 2019, the annual turnover rate was 10 percent. In 2020, 17.1 percent and in 2021, it was 13.5 percent,” Terrell-Jordan said. “Per the size of human resources management, the turnover rate for the city of our size should be less than 10 percent.”

Council Member Daryl Dowdell asked Terrell-Jordan which city department had the highest turnover rate and was it because of pay. Terrell-Jordan said that she hadn’t looked that up, but according to exit interviews she had in front of her, all she had was “resigned, terminated and retired.” She went on to say that the resignations took place in the Police, Fire and Public Works departments. Dowdell asked Terrell-Jordan if she could prove whether or not the turnover rate was because of the pay rate and she replied that she could not at this time.

Terrell-Jordan reiterated to the council her desire to ask to gather information to see what the issues are regarding the turnover rates and added that she can pull the exit interviews to find out what the employees stated.

Kinnamon asked her if she could confirm that the $22,500 had already been approved as part of the HR budget for the year and she told him that that amount had been approved. She added that $22,500 is what the Archer Company charges to complete the study and that the HR budget is $25,000.

Dowdell told Terrell-Jordan that last week, she said that this had nothing to do with the pay raise. She replied to Dowdell that last week, she stated that this does not guarantee a pay raise. When Dowdell asked her to elaborate on that, Terrell-Jordan stated that the purpose of the Classification and Compensation Study was to see what the issues are and that because she is asking for this study to be conducted, it does not mean that every city employee will get a pay raise. “It looks at every position. It makes sure that it is classified accordingly, meaning that should this position be exempt. Should this position be non-exempt? “It looks at all of those things,” Terrell-Jordan said.

Council Member Kelvin Pless asked Terrell-Jordan if the Classification and Compensation Study would determine why turnover is happening and she replied that it will pull information and the HR Department would have to figure out what the reasons for the turnover are. Pless replied that his main concern for the turnover rate could be due to unsatisfactory leadership and other variables besides pay. Terrell-Jordan replied that this study wouldn’t necessarily determine that pay raises should be given, but it will tell the city where it is and how it compares with other municipalities and how it can compete with those other municipalities. She added that she would be very instrumental in education the city’s employees when this study is completed and she stressed that the study is not a guarantee of a pay raise for city employees.

Diadra Powell told the council that she and Terrell-Jordan had conversations about previous studies on this issue and that she understands what the concerns are.

“We want to be clear that it is just that. It is a study,” Powell said. “It does not mean, even if the study comes back for hypothetical purposes. If the study comes back and says that our employees are five percent lower, that does not mean that you all (the city council) are obligated to provide them with any salary increases.”

Dowdell stated that his main concern was about being good stewards of the officials’ money. Dowdell said he was leery about doing the study because in another year, there will be a new budget and the council could be more comfortable giving pay raises. Diadra Powell stated that a week ago, there was a conversation about how many years would pass before a new Classification and Compensation study would take place. “I believe I said five,” Powell said. “We did go back to look and there is no mention of number of years.” Powell went on to tell the council that the city’s responsibility is to give the council the right information.

Powell also stated that the economy has drastically changed due to the cost of fuel and other items. She added that the economy has shifted and will probably continue to shift not just nationally, but internationally as well. For that reason, Powell expressed her opinion that such a study should be conducted, but added that it is the council’s decision.

Dowdell replied that he understands what is happening with inflation, but added that if the study was done and it came back and it shows that the city’s employees are underpaid, in his words, “Will we have to bring them up?” Powell reiterated to Dowdell that the council will make the ultimate decision, but added that with a study, it will have the information to make an informed decision. “If you don’t have the study, you don’t have the information,” Powell told Dowdell.

Dowdell replied that he understands what the study is for, but added that he is a steward of his constituents and his employees. “If this comes back and we say that they are underpaid and you don’t bring them up, then we are going to look really bad. That is a concern of mine,” Dowdell said.

Council Member Nicole Smith asked Terrell-Jordan if she stated that the study doesn’t give the variations of why the employees leave. Terrell-Jordan replied that the study will gather information of surrounding cities as far as what they pay their employees and how Americus compares to the benefits those other cities offer their employees. She added that the individuals that are hired to do the study will talk to those employees and ask them retention questions, such as why they are staying and are they happy with their pay. “That will give us an idea of how we need to move forward if we need to move forward at all,” Terrell-Jordan said.

Council Member Nelson Brown told Terrell-Jordan that the salaries for the City of Americus law enforcement officers is compatible with those of the other municipalities. Brown added that one of the reasons he is in favor of doing the study is because there is a large turnover rate and there are so many uncertainties. He added that the city needs to find out what it can do and do it differently to retain employees, or train new employees. “Those are my feelings on moving forward with the study,” Brown said.

Council Member Charles Christmas stated that as he was listening to the conversation, he noticed that it kept going back to what people are making in Americus and the surrounding areas and that doing the study just for the purpose of doing the study, without it meaning anything, didn’t make sense to him. He pretty much echoed the sentiments of Dowdell and Pless on the matter. “If it comes back that we don’t do anything with it, we’re still going to lose 10,11,12 percent of people. It’s not going to change the loss,” Christmas said. “That’s my concern about doing it. I don’t see a benefit to doing it.”

Dowdell added that he is really big on employee retention and that not all of the city’s employees will leave because of compensation. “I think that’s all I’m going to say on this issue,” Dowdell said. Council Member Brown replied that he didn’t think there was a clear distinction as to doing the study because of pay. “I don’t see that’s what the study is for,” Brown said. “I think the study is to have them to help us to better retain people or understanding why, or why people are leaving. I guess because I’ve heard so much and I know it’s not all about pay,” He continued.

Brown went on to say that he felt that the city needs help in retaining better employees and attracting better workers not just because of pay.

Dowdell told Brown that workers want to work under great leadership, a statement Brown agreed with.

Mayor Kinnamon asked Terrell-Jordan if the Archer Company will do a deep dive into all issues related to retention, or just primarily focusing on the pay scale. Terrell-Jordan replied that the study is based on classification, meaning are the employees in the right pay grade that they are supposed to be in and are they classified accordingly, non-exempt (hourly and eligible for overtime pay) versus exempt (salary and not eligible for overtime). She added that there was a situation recently in the Americus Fire Department in which the captains were listed as exempt employees, which shouldn’t have been done. “ We had to re-classify on the fire department’s captains and put them in a correct classification,” Terrell-Jordan said.

Kinnamon asked Terrell-Jordan whether or not those conducting the study would talk to both current and former employees. She replied that the study would deal only with current employees. Council Member Pless stated that other than pay, why else would there need to be a study and is there another alternative. Terrell-Jordan replied that the study would make sure that the positions are classified and that they have the proper title and are doing the proper things. “Those are some things that they will look at too by doing a job questionnaire analysis,” Terrell-Jordan said.

Council Member Smith asked Terrell-Jordan that if she has classified the fire captains as chiefs, could the HR department do all of the re-classifications for the entire city if needed. In response to Smith’s question to Terrell-Jordan, Diadra Powell stated that there was a lawsuit in another state where individuals stated that based on their duties and responsibilities, those employees should not be considered as exempt employees. “They won that lawsuit,” Powell said. “That particular organization was required, after they spent all that money on the lawsuit in defending it, to pay them. And so because of that, all the other cities who have individuals in that pay class are having to move them,” Powell continued.

Americus Fire Chief Roger Bivins stated that it goes back to the Fair Labor Standard Act and his captains were salaried and didn’t get overtime pay. Bivins added that the law states that if those captains are actively involved in firefighting, EMT or other things on scene, they had to be paid hourly and could receive overtime.

Council Member Christmas asked Terrell-Jordan if the study is done and it shows that some positions have to be moved to another classification, what happens as far as compensation is concerned? Terrell-Jordan replied that the Archer Company will only recommend that the salary or amount of pay should change to reflect that of the new classification, but stressed that there is nothing stating that the city has to move someone unless it’s illegal. “Just because someone says based on what they do, I think they should be paid this? That does not need to happen,” Terrell-Jordan said.

Kinnamon asked if the council was ready to make a motion either way on the issue. Council Member Brown made a motion to accept the request to have the Classification and Compensation Study done. Council Member Pless, even though he expressed trepidation about the study, decided to go along and second the motion because the funding for it ($22,500) is already in the budget. Council Members Brown and Pless voted in favor of the study, but Council Members Wilson, Christmas, Smith and Dowdell voted against it. Therefore, the motion to approve the Classification and Compensation Study failed by a 4-2 vote.

Kinnamon then asked if there was a motion to deny the request. Council Member Dowdell made a motion for approval and Council Member Smith seconded the motion for denial. Another vote was taken and Wilson, Smith, Dowdell and Christmas all voted for denial, while Council Members Pless and Brown voted against the motion for denial (4-2).