MSE salary increase leads to more debate at Elkader council meeting

Error message

  • Warning: array_merge(): Expected parameter 1 to be an array, bool given in _simpleads_render_ajax_template() (line 133 of /home/pdccourier/www/www/sites/all/modules/simpleads/includes/
  • Notice: Trying to get property 'settings' of non-object in _simpleads_adgroup_settings() (line 343 of /home/pdccourier/www/www/sites/all/modules/simpleads/includes/
  • Warning: array_merge(): Expected parameter 1 to be an array, bool given in _simpleads_render_ajax_template() (line 157 of /home/pdccourier/www/www/sites/all/modules/simpleads/includes/
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in include() (line 24 of /home/pdccourier/www/www/sites/all/modules/simpleads/templates/simpleads_ajax_call.tpl.php).

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


The latest Elkader City Council meeting was the site of impassioned pleas and debate as council members took another look at raising the rate of compensation for the Main Street Elkader (MSE) Director position after declining to do so during the previous session a little over two weeks ago. 


According to all involved, the previous decision by the council rests on a communication breakdown that occurred between city administrator Jennifer Cowsert and the council, which led to MSE moving forward in the hiring process. An offer was made, the onboarding process was initiated and the candidate was actually in the office for a day before the entire situation unraveled when the council voted against increasing the wage to $22. 


The specifics of the miscommunication remain muddled, with Cowsert “respectfully declining” to elaborate and the majority of other parties involved simply passing over the inquiry. It’s unclear when, where and how this evolved from a basic hiring process to the back and forth that transpired at last week’s meeting. 


One council member who shed some light on the issue was Deb Schmidt, who felt the public wasn’t getting the full story. According to Schmidt, the breakdown occurred over how the position was advertised, followed by what the candidate was offered versus what they were asking for, all of which has an impact on the budget. Schmidt noted the position was posted at the rate of $17 to 18 per hour, and MSE offered the candidate $20.16, but they did not accept the position. Instead, the individual countered with $22, at which point a communication breakdown occurred and they were offered the job at $22, only to be confronted by the reality the council had not approved or been adequately made aware of what was taking place. 


Part of the issue, for Schmidt and fellow council member Randy Henning, is the budget, which they both ardently wanted to adhere to. Schmidt made clear the city has “very little money to work with.” Knowing that, Schmidt felt the $2.16 raise over the posted position salary was fair, and additional money could’ve been negotiated into an annual increase, something Schmidt would’ve voted for over two weeks ago. 


However, that’s not how it was presented, and without an alternative to the city simply paying the additional wage that was not accounted for in the tight budget, it’s why Schmidt voted against the wage increase. 


Schmidt was also “clueless” as to why MSE expected to hire the candidate at $22 without first getting approval from council. In the aftermath of the original “no” vote, the ordeal appeared to “explode into what seemed like hard feelings.” 


According to MSE President Kristin Fitzgerald, this meant “there is no guarantee” the candidate would accept the position anymore, while adding the candidate no longer felt like they could “come out in the community.” 


Whether this remains true is unclear, as MSE declined to comment on the state of the hiring and Cowsert did not know. 


Former MSE Director Samantha Baumgartner, who turned in her resignation at the meeting, gave an impassioned plea and presentation to the council, in an effort to persuade them to vote for the wage increase as written in Resolution 2023-06, which establishes the rates of compensation for the position at $22. 


Baumgartner said her intent was not to “upset anyone,” but simply put all the cards on the table and highlight the importance of having an MSE Director and the impact not having one has had on the current board and volunteers. Baumgartner also questioned the “why” behind the decision to vote against the $22, arguing that, while the rate is higher than anticipated, it pales in comparison to what is lost without a director. 


During the presentation, Baumgartner spoke about the history of MSE, which has existed since 1991, and everything it’s done in the previous 32 years. That’s included bringing 87 business start-ups or expansions to downtown, creating 144 new jobs in the downtown district, being involved in 18 reported MSI grant related building rehabilitation projects, bringing in $10,498,485 in private investment in downtown, and providing over 130,000 volunteer hours, saving the city an estimated $4 million. 


Additionally, in a prepared response from the MSE Board, the director works to ensure the organization is working to meet the Main Street Iowa and National Main Street accreditation standards, collaborates with existing groups to maintain  cultural entertainment district standing, assists businesses with applications for grants and works with eight committees to ensure projects and events align with the needs and goals of the downtown district. 


The position, as Baumgartner stated at the meeting, is “worth its weight in gold.” Without one, according to the board, they have been “unable to work on various annual projects that are typically executed by the MSE director,” with one of those annual projects being grant writing assistance, “which provides a huge benefit to the community and our Main Street district businesses.” 


Armed with this knowledge, council member Tony Hauber, who was involved in the hiring decision and has supported the rate increase, took it upon himself to find the money in the budget to get Schmidt and Henning on board. He stated at the meeting that he “understands the budget is important,” but so is an MSE director, so he looked for items to put on the chopping block to make up the difference. 


That item ended up being the TextMyGov subscription, for which the city pays $1,500 per year. According to Hauber, the system never fully lived up to its potential, and is nothing compared to the value the MSE director provides. 


At this point, with budget issues seemingly resolved, the only question remaining was if the council would vote for the rate increase. While Henning openly worried about the position’s recent turnover, Mayor Josh Pope simply stated there is “no crystal ball.” While Hauber offered a similar concern, the larger concern remained filling the vacancy.  


The council unanimously voted for the resolution, which should have calmed the waters, but there was some tense conversation between MSE representatives and Schmidt over what was and what wasn’t in the budget and a side dispute over the difference between negotiating a salary and demanding one. 


Council member Peggy Lane simply wanted to know how the council and MSE could “move forward without animosity.” Schmidt reiterated her initial decision was not meant to be against MSE, a perception she said “needs to end,” but was entirely about the budget. 


What’s interesting is the budget amount needed to cover the increase to $22 appears to have involved its own miscommunication. Through an email exchange with Cowsert, it was revealed the city never needed an additional $3,700 to cover the increase anyway.  


According to Cowsert, if the current budget being debated is approved, the city only needed to find about $1,700 to cover the raise to $22 and not $3,700.


As Cowsert explained, “The budget for this year was not impacted because we will have extra money from the time the former director was on leave. The new budget, had the former director stayed, would reflect a 5 percent increase that all employees will receive (if the budget is approved by the council). If approved, then the difference would only be $1,623. The $3,700 number was compared to the current hourly rate, and should have been compared to the new hourly rate as of July 1.” 


In the end, all relevant parties professed satisfaction over the outcome and expressed a desire to move forward, while also working to limit future communication breakdowns. 


Hauber offered the following statement: “We always rectify communication breakdowns by finding common ground and building from it. We did that here and we will continue to do that in the future.”


Schmidt stated, “I’m just glad that the extra money was found in the city budget and we can move forward.”


MSE replied, “We are very thankful to have the support of the Elkader City Council and are excited to welcome a new executive director to the role, helping Elkader to move forward as well as keep our organization going into our 32nd year of impacting this wonderful community.”

Rate this article: 
No votes yet