Vice Mayor Kevin Gavigan

Vice Mayor Kevin Gavigan

The City of Spring Hill cautiously voted six to two in favor or a retention bonus and travel subsidy for its employees overall.

The Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved $479,500 for bonuses and transportation subsidies to help sustain city employees amid relentless inflation despite Vice Mayor Kevin Gavigan’s warning about the pitfalls of a short-term fix. This follows a 2.5% cost-of-living increase approved in July 2021. Since then, the city has hired over 34 employees chasing the 25 vacancies reported in October, yet Spring Hill still entered June 2022 with 31 vacancies.

City Administrator Pam Caskie recommended the so-called employee retention bonus and transportation subsidy to BOMA last Wednesday, and the body voted on the matter this week without prior discussion on the subject. Her memo to the board cited about $500,000 of budget space from sales tax collections with which to adequately appreciate and support city personnel. Before voting, Vice Mayor Gavigan recommended three alternative methods of allocating the half-million.

“Purely from a corporate governance standpoint, a short-term incentive is not to be used as a retention tool,” Gavigan cautioned before voting against the measure. “If we want to retain good employees, you do it three ways: you do it through a long-term incentive program, you do it by making our salaries competitive, and you do it by providing a great place to work.”

The retention memo requested that the almost-half-million dollars be used to provide city employees who have worked for Spring Hill for a year or more with a $1,500 post-tax bonus. It also recommended a $750 post-tax bonus for employees who have been with the city for more than six months but less than a year. Moreover, a gas subsidy of $500 was suggested for all city employees who have no city-owned work vehicles.

Last year when the cost-of-living increase was approved, gas stood at $3.03 per gallon. It had risen to $4.20 and hovered around there for over three months by the time Caskie submitted the memo to BOMA. This week has seen that elevate at least another 45 cents.

The memo — and the term “retention bonus” — attributed part of the rationale behind the measure to a growing risk that city employees would leave their posts to take private-sector jobs unless the city showed them monetary, tangible appreciation for their dedication.

Alderman Hazel Nieves opposed the resolution on several points, saying it was “kind of like a stimulus payment.” She challenged the notion that the staffing shortage was at all related to compensation rates, attributing it instead to the current economic climate and alluding vaguely to the Great Resignation. That was something with which the city would just have to deal to the best of its ability, she said.

“When you look back, we have one of the largest staffs on payroll right now that I believe the city has ever had. Of course, we’ve increased in population,” Nieves pointed out. “We continue to be one of the 15 fastest growing cities in our country, so we’ve got the rooftops but not affordable to our own employees here.”

Nieves also highlighted the fact that Spring Hill is a quintessential commuter city. The entire city’s workforce — public and private — commutes 24 miles on average to work in Spring Hill according to Nieves, which means a sizable labor demographic does not reside locally. She characterized this as people being employed by various businesses or government in the city but not being able to afford residence there. She went further to call the memo “unfair” to elected officials like herself who disagreed with its sentiment.

“I really don’t appreciate the theater that seems to be designed to spotlight board members who don’t agree with this,” Nieves said.

Aldermen Jason Cox and Trent Linville, both proponents of the measure, characterized it as the city’s way of investing in itself. Cox acknowledged the recent pay raise, yet said it was insufficient since new wages were still not where they should be for a city the size of Spring Hill in comparison to similar cities.

Linville pointed to the potential for greater expenses than this in the long run from onboarding and training new hires to missed opportunities like grants that staff might not catch or construction work that decelerates.

“I think that investing in retaining our staff — the high quality staff that we’ve both developed and acquired over the past few years — is an extremely, extremely high return-on-investment decision,” Linville said.