Mayor Calls for Firefighter Pay Raise in 'State of City'

11:49 PM, Jan 23, 2013   |    comments
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin issues his "State of the City" address on January 23, 2012.
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Columbia, SC (WLTX) - Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin held his annual "State of the City" address Wednesday night, where he touted the city's achievements and called for a pay raise for firefighters.

Benjamin held his address at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.

The mayor spent much of the address talking about the city's economy, and plans to continue Columbia's growth into a premier city in the South.   Benjamin highlighted the 22 businesses that have moved to downtown since he took office in 2010.

However, Benjamin said the city needs to give firefighters a 6.67 percent increase in pay. He says in the last seven years, the city's lost 60 percent of its fire personnel, and a higher salary could stop those losses.

For the first time ever, the event had sign language interpreters, making the address available to those who are deaf.

Below are Mayor Benjamin's full remarks as prepared for delivery.

Members of Council, Madam City Manager, Brigadier General Roberts, honored guests, gathered family and friends and my fellow Columbians:

Two friends sitting in an airport notice a young girl, about seven or eight years old, playing with an iPad and the one friend comments on how well behaved the young lady is sitting quietly while most children her age would be fidgeting and squirming around or otherwise acting out from boredom.

The other friend, however, is not impressed and begins to complain about parents neglecting their children to technology.

"Why, when I was her age, my parents would make me read a book or practice my handwriting. But these days they just give them a video game and tune them out. It's disgusting. How's that girl ever going to learn anything staring at a screen?"

The first man tries to calm his friend down but this just makes him madder and, before long, he's in such a fit that he stomps over to the young family to give them a piece of his mind.

When he comes back his friend asks what happened and he says, "Well, I went over there just like I said and I told them just what I thought. I told them how their daughter could be spending this time learning something instead of just rotting her brain and I asked them what she could get from this toy that she couldn't get from a good old fashioned crossword."

"And?" his friend asks. "What did they say?"

"Introduction to Mandarin."

Ladies and Gentlemen, the world is changing around us.

Facebook has more active monthly users than any nation - save India and China - has people.

Google sees over 100 Billion searches every month, Twitter sees more than 500 Million tweets every day and one out of every six couples married in the United States over the past three years met online.

Our world is changing.

Ten years ago there was no such thing as a Chief Listening Officer, Web Content Manager, Mobile App Developer or Sustainability Expert. But today these careers can draw annual salaries anywhere from $70,000 to $175,000 a year.

Now, I've talked at length about the Knowledge Economy before, and that's not what I'm doing here. We've seen these signs already and taken action building, among others, an Insurance Information Technology Cluster that rivals any of its kind in the nation. We've supported IT-oLogy, supported our annual open source software conference POSSCON and held the state's first cyber-security summit in conjunction with the White House.

This isn't about the Knowledge Economy or the new frontier of jobs it's creating, it's about the pioneers filling those vacancies and the unique reality foretold in their manifest destiny.

Let me be clear: a Social Media Specialist doesn't exactly work a standard nine to five. Your company's Network Administrator doesn't necessarily work in your building. A computer programmer can write code just as easily while he's drinking a cup of coffee at Drip on Main Street as from his office desk and the independent Web Developer who lives next door may have more clients from Austin and Arizona than Columbia or Cayce.

And it isn't just IT professionals anymore. Journalist and Designers, Accountants and Consultants; roughly one in five employees worldwide telecommutes to his or her job at least part time and, here in America, that number is closer to one in four here in America.

Now, with that in mind, recognize that 64% of Americans born after 1980, our rising generation of Millennials, decide where they want to live, move there and then look for a job and 77% would rather live in a vibrant urban core than a suburban development.

What does that tell you?

It should tell you that we're facing something unprecedented. It should tell you that the old rules no longer apply and we're looking at a complete reversal of conventional wisdom.

It should tell you we are faced with a wholly new economic reality where talent no longer follows industry. In fact, the reverse is true and will be true for the foreseeable future because, as the Millennials represent a demographic wave larger than the Baby Boomers, this trend will impact our city and our nation for better or worse for the next 50 years or longer.

It should tell you people are looking for a sense of place when they decide where they will live and bring their time, talents and treasures. Together we must create that sense of place in Columbia.

Two friends sitting in an airport notice a young girl, about seven or eight years old, playing with an iPad.

One longs for the familiar past and the other sees a future's promise. Which one are we?

30 months ago I posed that question in this very building as I swore my oath and stepped forward as Mayor of this great city.

I said then "We live in an age of unprecedented possibility. Every day science and medicine are eradicating the great plagues of this world. Every day technological advances transform fantasy into reality. Every day new opportunities and resources appear at our fingertips yet the question remains - 'Do we have the courage to believe in ourselves and what we can be? Are we brave enough to reach out and take hold?'"

I said then that I believe we are and I believe we will.

I believe we will do what is hard and dare what is great not in spite of its difficulty - but because of it.

Because nothing worth doing was ever easy and because the future is not for the feint hearted - but for the bold.

I said then I believe we are and I believe we will.

30 months later I believe it still.

30 months later Metro Unemployment has fallen from 9.5% the day I took office to 7.6% today outpacing our state and national recovery.

30 months later we have risen to meet the criminal threat with increased manpower and new technology cutting our Homicide rate by 20% and Sexual Assault by 30% this year alone.

30 months later we've invested nearly $320 million in rebuilding our water, sewer and stormwater systems. We've launched exciting new green infrastructure projects using modular storage for flood control in Shandon and utilizing PAVE-DRAIN pervious pavement in Rosewood. We've updated our stormwater ordinance, developed a regional Sustainable Energy Plan and cut sewage spills throughout the city by half.

We have gone from a financial crisis, a depleted reserve fund and employees on furlough to an improved credit rating and three straight years of budget surplus. We've added over $8 million dollars in public safety funding, saved over $12.6 million by refinancing our city bonds and gave our employees their first cost of living pay raise in four years and we've done it without raising taxes.

Today we are committed to continuing those dramatics steps forward. We're committed to keeping our budget strong and make it stronger with more efficiency and less waste. We're committed to further improving our bond rating and growing our reserves. And we're committed to further stemming the rising tide of healthcare costs.

Today we have a new Employee Health Center that not only helps our city employees and their dependents keep more of their hard-earned money by eliminating co-pays on doctor visits and prescriptions, but keeps them healthier, happier and more productive. We're catching chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood-pressure, treating them more efficiently and effectively and, because of that, this city's healthcare costs are under budget for the first time since anyone can remember.

So there can be no doubt and no hesitation when I proudly proclaim that, ladies and gentlemen, the state of our city is strong!

Imagine if I had stood before you in the summer of 2010 and promised the city you see before you today.

Imagine if I had said that our police department would be fully staffed for the first time in 15 years and CPD overtime would down 72%.

Imagine if I'd promised to install 263 security cameras across the city, that we'd make history with a new cooperative mutual aid agreement with the Sheriff's Department and that our own police chief would receive the Strom Thurmond Award for Excellence in Law Enforcement.

You'd have said "Benjamin needs to get his head checked."

Imagine me promising to install bike corrals throughout our hospitality districts, 20 electric car charging pods and 800 Automatic Read water meters.

Imagine me predicting a new Bar and Restaurant Recycling program, Phase One of the Vista Greenway completed and 620 trees planted last year alone.

Imagine me proclaiming that, by 2013, our public transportation would be safe, reliable, efficient and fully supported by a permanent source of funding.

You'd have laughed me off the stage.

30 months after taking office we have 22 new businesses Downtown and Main Street is thriving.

We topped a Famously Hot New Year's celebration that some people called a fluke because if brought 20,000 people to Main Street with a second year effort attended by 25,000 people from 29 states and four countries.

Today the Tapp's Art Center is operational housing over 30 artists, every apartment on Main Street is full, the Palmetto Center is under development and we expect a development agreement with Bob Hughes on the Bull Street property by the end of this quarter. Let me tell you, if I had predicted accomplishing those goals in less than three years on Day One, there wouldn't have been a Day Two.

I can see my daughters reading the headlines now: "Benjamin Goes Bonkers," "New Mayor Locked Away For His Own Safety," "Family Says Never Saw It Coming."

Who would have predicted that an ice rink Downtown would be so successful, bring nearly 14,000 people to Main Street in its first year, that we'd get letters from young skaters and businesses alike asking us to extend the contract?

But look around you today and you'll see. It's not a dream. It's not a hallucination. It's not a pack of empty promises for political gain and profit.

It's our vision coming true. It's our present meeting our potential. It's our city finally living up to its promise.

Two friends sitting in an airport notice a young girl, about seven or eight years old, playing with an iPad.

One longs for the familiar past and the other sees a future's promise. Which one are we?

We are Columbia and, folks, we're just getting started.

The future holds great things for this city.

I'm talking about capitalizing on the nationally recognized expertise of the dynamic, father/son duo and City Roots creators Robbie and Eric McClam and the remarkable success of our own Community Garden initiative to transform neglected and underutilized land here in the City into at least two new year-round urban farms and 100 more community gardens across Columbia.

I'm talking about completing key IT projects like automated timekeeping, upgrading our utility billing system and launching a redesigned city website to put our city on the cutting edge of technology and incorporating proposals made by the Business Services Review Task Force that streamline procedures and help make Columbia truly business and customer-friendly.

I'm talking about completing our Main Street streetscaping project as we welcome the state's largest financial institution, AgFrist to Main Street and develop an exciting, beautiful, aesthetic connection to what North Main and Bull Street have in store.

I'm talking about a renewed focus, through public, private and regional partnerships, on homelessness that will dramatically improve our downtown while also fundamentally changing the lives of so many hurting souls.

I'm talking about collaborating with the Historic Columbia Foundation to develop a new Landmark Designation and Demolition Delay Ordinance to encourage active and robust growth and development while protecting our city's rich historical texture.

I'm talking giving our police officers cutting-edge crime fighting tools like new predictive policing software and committing to a new citywide security camera initiative. These cameras have been invaluable tools helping solve crimes in our hospitality districts like Five Points, the Vista and Downtown. Now it's time we put them to work preventing crime in neighborhoods like Eau Claire and Earlewood, Rosewood, Shandon, Hyatt Park, MLK and Waverly.

I'm talking about building on our partnerships with organizations like The Animal Mission, The Humane SPCA, Pawmetto Lifeline and new initiatives that helped cut our Animal Control euthanasia rate by 11% this year and found a loving home for our "poster boy" shepherd/bulldog mix "Petey" less than a week after he was introduced to council to develop and execute a plan that transitions the Columbia/Richland Animal Shelter to a no-kill shelter within five years.

I'm talking about celebrating our rich diversity and African-American history stepping out of the shadows to place Columbia alongside cities like Selma, Birmingham, Jackson, Montgomery and Memphis with a year-long celebration that raises our city as a true historical and cultural tourism destination and marks 50 years since the watershed year that was 1963.

I'm talking about historic markers, reunions, Civil Rights Sundays at the Nickelodeon Theater and the largest archeological dig of African-American sites ever attempted by any city in the nation.

I'm talking about connecting our city's past, present and future to leave a lasting legacy where men and women like Sarah Mae Flemming, Modjeska Simkins, the Honorable Matthew Perry and Ernest Finney, Robert Anderson, Henrie Monteith and James Solomon take their rightful place alongside Rosa Parks, James Merideth and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as true American heroes who made it possible for us to join together here today as equals free from fear and violence.

Now, more than ever, let us remember that the University of South Carolina's integration did not require escorts from U.S Marshals or soldiers from the National Guard.

Let us remember how the words and actions of visionary leaders helped ease the tensions that threatened to tear us apart.

Let us remember that, while cities like Selma and Birmingham burned and exploded into violent outbursts of anger and hatred, Columbia remained whole.

We have come so far since 1963 and, 50 years later, there is work still left to be done. The divisions of race, gender and all the other walls that separate us are not yet ground into dust.

But, today, the forces of cacophony and discord must use coded language and anonymity when they raise their voices, because their once bold and brash certainty is tempered with shame.

This is our opportunity to celebrate that progress, to applaud that leadership and to rededicate ourselves to that fundamental principle that all men and women are created equal.

The future holds great things for this city. I've seen it with my own eyes.

Last night, I joined community and business leaders from across Columbia to kick off Agape Senior's $8 million project to renovate three historic buildings, including the old Kimbrell's Furniture building, transforming them into a hub of activity that will include the Good Life Café, a 24-hour fitness center, a primary care center and pharmacy not to mention bringing Agape's corporate headquarters, over 100 full-time employees and a 3,000 square-foot conference center to train their 1,900 employees statewide

When SCANA left Downtown just over three years ago, the critics said that Main Street was dead. I want to thank Agape's CEO Scott Middleton for proving once and for all that Main Street is not only alive and well, but that it's best days are yet to come. Scott, thank you.

I am incredibly proud to welcome Scott and Agape Senior to our fair city but I also know that a victory like this doesn't happen all on its own. It takes tireless effort, countless hours and a fair amount of prayer.

And there are people out there who would argue it isn't worth the effort.

But we know better. We know that the old strategy of cheap labor and free property is a thing of the past and, in a world where industry follows talent, creating a culture of creativity and a unique sense of place is vital to all we hope to accomplish.

Our city hasn't had a farmer's market Downtown in 60 years. But today we have two. Now, that's a big deal all by itself.

Famously Hot New Year's, the Main Street Crit and Main Street Ice filling our sidewalks with spectators and shoppers; the Nickelodeon opening its doors; leveraging $425,000 in federal CDBG funds with over $6.1 million in private investment to bring historic downtown landmarks like the Brennan Building back to their former glory; restoring the hidden treasures in our 140 year-old City Hall - each is a major accomplishment in its own right.

But combined their impact is huge and, taken in the context of a rising generation of talent that prefers an exciting and vibrant Downtown to a suburban lawns and picket fences, it becomes immeasurable and absolutely vital to our economic future.

Live streaming Council Meetings, Virtual Town Halls, providing our residents with near real-time crime data through RAIDS Online; technological breakthroughs like these are great news.

Joining forces with leading social recruitment and job distribution network site TweetMyJobs to launch Famously Hot Jobs, a new hyper-local employment platform which, in just four months, has registered over 1,600 job seekers and 63 employers throughout Metro Columbia providing over 11,000 job matches and saving local area businesses millions of dollars in job posting fees. That's a headline.

But when trying to engage a metro workforce of close to 370,000, roughly 50,000 college students and a wave of soldiers returning home from two wars transitioning to civilian life in a world of iPads, smartphones and 500 million tweets every day, it's something much more important than that.

Take our new busking ordinance for street performers, the Tapp's Art Center housing nearly 30 independent artists, One Columbia for Arts and Historic Preservation, our One Book; One Columbia initiative and our continued focus on public art. Now add the context of a cultural economy that generates $13 billion and 108,000 jobs statewide.

We recognize that, in a world where jobs follow talent, quality of life issues are essential to economic development.

That's why we get so excited about Gameday football and the Palmetto Capital City Classic.

That's why we're thrilled Columbia is home to the Miss South Carolina Pageant.

That's why the State Museum's Aerospace expansion is so important

And that's why I'm proud to announce that the bids are out and soon you will be able to walk the Three Rivers Greenway from Gervais Street to the baseball stadium to watch the Gamecocks play.

So many people worked so hard to see this project through that I couldn't possibly recognize all of them here tonight. But I would like to take a moment single out one, not just for his role in completing the Greenway, but for his diligent and dedicated service to all of Columbia.

Whether building this convention center, blazing a path through the fiscal wilderness and ushering in a new era of responsibility and discipline, or having patience enough for a young mayor with little patience of his own; Steve Gantt's humble leadership can be seen through every facet of this great city and reminds us of who we are and what is possible and will be felt for generations to come.

All we achieve in the years to come we will owe at least in part to the solid foundation he built and for that, if for nothing else, he has our most sincere thanks. So, Steve, if you could join us here on stage for just a moment.

In medieval Europe, violence and disease were so rampant and the people's safety was so precarious that strangers to a city were met with high stone walls and imposing iron gates.

But every so often, one of those strangers would show, through rare action, an uncommon kindness and charity, honor, and selfless dedication to his fellow man.

So it became custom that, in that special circumstance, the feudal lord would lower the guard, open the gates and present his guest with the literal keys to the city.

Now, I am no duke, earl or king; Columbia has no wall, gate or palisade; and Steve is certainly no stranger. But it is that same tradition that we remember here is recognizing Steve Gantt and, by presenting him with this Key to our City, we welcome him with hopes of many happy returns.

We thank Steve for all he's done and, more importantly, we thank his wife Mary Ellen for sharing him with us.

Asked once why a lawyer from Massachusetts would spend so much time neglecting his practice preoccupied with international politics and war, John Adams answered, "I must study politics and

war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics, commerce and philosophy in order to give their children the right to study architecture, poetry and art."

Steve Gantt not only helped put our city's fiscal house in order, he developed and championed policies to keep it that way and, in doing so, gave us the liberty to take Columbia's transformation to the next level by creating new high-paying jobs, supporting strong communities and building new partnerships with our regional neighbors.

Because she has demonstrated not only impeccable qualifications and a remarkable ability in those critical areas but a clear understanding of our vision for this city's future and an uncommon talent for inspiring those around her to think creatively and achieve beyond themselves, I can think of no one I would rather have spearheading this challenge than Teresa Wilson and I am confident that she will exceed our highest expectations as City Manager.

Born and raised right here in Columbia and a graduate of the University of South Carolina Honors College and School of Law, Teresa has already had a tremendous impact on our city as Assistant City Manager and Director of Governmental Affairs.

Under her leadership, our once struggling Community Development department has become a model organization winning the 2012 John A Sasso National Community Development Week Award and she helped reduce our Commercial Revolving Loan Fund's default rate from 29% to 4% over the past fiscal year.

As our Assistant City Manager over Economic Development, she and her team have led the rebirth of Downtown aggressively recruiting new businesses and implementing our highly successful Façade Grant Program.

And, working with departments across the city, she has helped supplement vital services like public safety with tens of millions in grant dollars including nearly $4 million over the past year alone.

Teresa understands this city. She knows who we are and, more importantly, she believes in who we can be.

Thank you, Teresa, for accepting this challenge and I know that we all look forward to the great things she has in store for our great city and for all the people of Columbia.

And one of the first issues I'm asking her and Council to address is pay disparity.

This isn't a new issue for us. In fact, last year's 2% cost of living increase was the first real progress we've made in years. But there is much work left to be done especially where our firefighters are concerned.

In the past year we have stepped forward to resolve some of the most pressing issues facing our fire department. We finalized the long awaited Unified Fire Service Agreement with Richland County. We certified 200 firefighters as Coaching Emergency Vehicle Operators allowing them to drive ambulances in emergency situations. We've received grants to improve HazMat and Search and Rescue operations and graduated the largest recruiting class in CFD history.

Yet wage disparity and stagnation continue to undermine our ability to retain our best and brightest and attrition within the department has risen to near crisis levels.

We've lost 60% of our fire personnel since 2006 and had to spend over $3.3 million on new hires over the past five years because our firefighters are making thousands of dollars less than their counterparts in cities across the Southeast and it's time we did something about it.

Let me be clear: I have little doubt that many if not most of our city employees are making less money than they deserve and I support a comprehensive wage disparity study to identify these problem areas and develop a comprehensive strategy to bring all city wages up to the market rate. But we shouldn't wait for that larger discussion to address the challenge staring us in the face tonight.

That's why I have asked our new City Manager to make good on the promise this city made in our 2007 Public Safety Retention Plan and give our firefighters the 6.67% raise they're owed. Chief Jenkins has the money in his budget right now to make it happen and it's time we let him use it.

This is an important step forward and Ms. Wilson will work with our Human Resources Director and Fire Chief to ensure an equitable plan to address the disparity in salaries within the Fire Department and begin to budget this year to comprehensively address disparities in wages and functions citywide.

The future holds great things for this city. I've seen it with my own eyes.

But it's not all I've seen.

I've seen 5th graders with mouths full of cavities because they've never seen a dentist.

I've seen Mothers and fathers working multiple jobs each just to pay the mortgage and keep food on the table too tired to read to their children when they finally get home so they just plop down in front of the TV and pass out on the couch.

I've seen children squirreling food away from their lunch trays to feed younger brothers and sisters at home, growing children who need fresh fruits and vegetables, protein and whole grain trying to live off the McDonalds dollar menu.

I know that for every little girl learning to speak Mandarin on her mother's iPad there are countless others left to fend for themselves in a harsh and changing world and I know that, for every young man who rises to greatness, there are countless others who just give up because all they know is struggle and they can't see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are in a war for our children's souls, for their future, and if we don't engage them and challenge them, if we don't show them every day how much we love them, how much we support them and how much we believe in them then we're going to lose them.

We're going to lose them because the world out there doesn't care. It doesn't recognize the difference between a bad kid and a good kid who made a bad decision. It doesn't recognize unrealized potential and it doesn't give second chances.

Left to its own devices, the world out there will chew them up and spit them out. That's why we're here: to protect them and to teach them how to protect themselves.

So, with that in mind, I want to introduce you to Paxton.

Paxton is 17 years-old. He's Junior at Lower Richland High School and soon, thanks to the folks at Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Paxton is going to be my little brother.

Now, I want you to think about this. I am a husband and a father. I practice law at a major law firm and I'm the Mayor of Columbia, South Carolina. Ask my staff and they'll tell you, time is not something I have in abundant supply.

But if I can find the time to volunteer as a mentor for young, Paxton there, then maybe some of you can too.

Now imagine if all of us in this room took that charge to heart. Imagine if each of us signed up at Big Brothers, Big Sisters or registered with our new Mayor's Mentoring Network and invested our time and our experience in helping some young man or woman live up to his or her potential.

Imagine each of us reaching out with the gift of opportunity and the impact that would make across our city.

Imagine what we could do together.

And stay tuned in the next few days as we prepare to announce your opportunity to engage that energy and spirit of volunteerism in a new citywide service initiative.

We can do great things in this city and we will. But not every challenge we face can be met from the Mayor's office.

Not every obstacle before us can be overcome by hiring more police officers, hiring a visionary city manager or giving firefighters a well-deserved raise.

I believe that government can and should be a force for progress, innovation and change. I believe that government can and should be a force for good. But I also know that government cannot be limited to the decisions made in City Hall because this is a government of, by and for the people and we are the people.

Two friends sitting in an airport notice a young girl, about seven or eight years old, playing with an iPad.

One longs for the familiar past and the other sees a future's promise. Which one are we?

We are the people. We are Columbia. And we're just getting started.

Thank you. May God bless you. And may God continue to bless the City of Columbia.



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