Wichita City Council finalized its annual budget of $ 670 million on Tuesday, setting a minimum hourly wage of $ 15 for city employees and putting the Century II Performing Arts Center and the city’s golf system on track. of privatization.
The approval came after a final hearing in which union leader Esau Freeman and Mayor Brandon Whipple traded blows over wages, and Save Century II activist Celeste Racette accused Whipple of being too deferential towards the developers and act as a character in a Harry Potter novel.
City staff initially forecast a shortfall of $ 10 to 11 million due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But that was before a $ 70 million injection of US federal stimulus law and unexpected increases in sales tax revenue.
This additional money will allow the City to fill a number of positions that have remained vacant in order to save money.
The first wave of hiring will include 139 civilian positions and seven other police officers.
The budget vote came shortly after a sharp exchange between Whipple and Freeman, the commercial director of Service Employees International Union Local 513.
“It’s the employees who are the little hodgepodge in the rest of the budget after you’ve finished giving all the money to the police and fire department,” Freeman said. “I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of rewarding the people who kept your water during this pandemic, who made sure your sewers didn’t back up and the people who worked your streets that jobs didn’t back up. did not go to subcontractors.
Freeman also said that if the city did not raise wages across the board, the new $ 15 minimum would be seen as an insult and lead to “pretty huge employment problems.”
The employees “who have been here for four years and are just starting to make $ 15 an hour now are a little worried that the next person who walks in the door will make $ 15 an hour,” Freeman said.
Whipple took offense at Freeman’s criticisms of the starting salary of $ 15 an hour.
“What percentage of your union is likely to benefit from it?” Whipple asked. “Do you know by heart? “
Freeman responded that even if the union supports the $ 15 minimum wage, only a small percentage of SEIU workers will actually benefit.
“I think there were around 70 to 80 people (in line for increases) and half of them were three cents to $ 15 an hour,” Freeman said. The union represents between 800 and 900 workers.
When Whipple lobbied Freeman by pointing out that the city is hiring and re-hiring people who will be members of SEIU in a few months, Freeman replied, “This is another point of contention, since you asked for it.”
“When the city takes action like a management company stepped in and pulled some of its employees out of their hands, it doesn’t help Wichita have more paid jobs, more good jobs,” he said. -he declares. “It usually lowers the employee’s pay and makes their life more difficult.”
Whipple was also a lightning rod for Racette critics.
Racette, who endorsed Whipple in 2019, objected to Whipple telling her and other public speakers last week that they shouldn’t be criticizing developers by name if they were not at the council meeting.
Racette pointed out on August 17 that Fairfield Inn & Suites developer Jim Korroch, who is also president of Visit Wichita, received money from the Transient Guest Tax fund, which could otherwise have been used to upgrade Century II, while also working on the Riverfront Legacy Master Plan, which called for the demolition of Century II and the construction of new performing arts and convention centers next to the Korroch hotel.
In response, Whipple asked Racette and others not to name the developers they criticized.
“I back down a bit when we launch any kind of attack on private citizens who are not here and use this platform to do it,” Whipple said last week. “It would technically be considered a violation of decorum.”
Racette hit back on Tuesday, comparing Whipple to a member of the fictional wizarding world in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, where the characters referred to an evil antagonist as “You Know Who” or “The Unnamed” One.
“If a developer comes to the city to ask for taxpayer funds, they shouldn’t be banned from saying their name as Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter,” she said on Tuesday. “The names of the developers are part of the city’s public record. Taxpayers want transparency and accountability, not secrecy.