The De Queen City Council held a discussion on a plan to provide the benefit of college tuition to city employees and their families at their meeting on Sept. 7.
The tuition program was presented by Alderman Rick Pruitt, who said that along the lines of Pilgrim’s recent announcement that they had entered into an agreement with UA Cossatot to pay for the education of employees and their children, he felt the city might want to provide the same benefit in order to recruit and sustain employees.
According to Pruitt, the college would give city employees a 50 percent discount to the employee and/or their spouse and 25 percent off for their children. He said that the reason for the difference in discounts was because he didn’t know the exact costs and wasn’t sure the city would want to include children in the plan. He said that it would require anyone that joins the plan to apply for a Pell grant.
“It will cost the city hardly anything at all,” Pruitt said, noting that in some cases it would cost the city “zero.”
He said it was another way to help employees educate the community.
City Clerk Donna Jones said the employee education program the city currently has reimburses employees for their tuition if they passed the course with a “B”.
“This can go hand in hand with what we’ve had in place all these years,” Jones said, noting that currently, the classes have to be in line with the employees work with the hope of gearing them toward filling a position in the future.
Pruitt said that the 50 percent discount was in most fields but that some, such as nursing, can’t give a 50 percent discount because there’s too much lab and other costs involved.
Mayor Jeff Brown said that he didn’t know if the city had many employees that would take advantage of the program. He said that if the city funds the children’s education, they would be looking at spending a lot of money over time.
“The employee and the spouse is quite doable,” Brown said, noting that to add children to the program would, over 20 years, cost the city a considerable sum of money.
The council discussion touched on what lengths the city would want to go to in the education of their employees, whether the education would have to be primarily work-related or whether the city would pay for programs and degrees that were not in the realm of their current or future job duties. A concern was that the employee would leave the city once graduating and finding there was not a viable position available within the city ranks related to the degree.
Jones said that currently, city employees can take classes at the college and be reimbursed by the city when they pass the class, a process that would involve the employee to front the costs in the face of other personal bills, and could take months for the employee to recover those costs. She said that there hasn’t been a lot of involvement in the current plan.
“If it was structured right, this might spark some interest in that,” she said.
Jones said that a lot of class hours are offered to police, water and sewer employees though not much is available to street workers. She agreed the discounts being offered by the college would be a benefit to employees.
Pruitt said that Pilgrim’s has limited their program to one family member at a time.
Alderman Kathy Richards said that the city should do a needs assessment to see if there was interest in the program. She asked if the city would require beneficiaries to stay for a certain length of time after receiving their education.
Brown said that he was for the program, just not paying for the education of employee children. Pruitt said that the college would give the children 25 percent off of tuition at no cost to the city.
“That’s a win-win as far as I’m concerned,” Jones said. She said that the city would need to know the costs, for budget purposes, before committing, and that the plan needed to be researched.
Pruitt said that even if the city paid for the education of an employee and they quit working for the city, he hoped that they would stay in De Queen and continue to benefit the city with their education.
Brown said the city has 80 employees and that they invest heavily into educating and training them all. He said they are trying to raise wages in order to keep them employed at the city.
Richards said that she has seen a lot of employees at the college leave after getting their education, in many cases, paying the school back for the cost of the classes. She was concerned the city would face the same issues in its program.
Alderman Jeff Holcombe said that a possible benefit would be if the city traditionally interviews three people for a job, free education might draw nine people to apply for an open position.
“I guess what I’m saying is that you have an opportunity to pull quality people in for interviews that are interested in it because of the benefits,” Holcombe said.
Brown asked the council to let him talk to the city employees to see what the interest level was with them and their spouses.
“There may not be much,” he said.
Holcombe suggested Brown ask them what direction they would like to see it go as well as what they would be interested in and if it was related to what they do for the city.
“Just so we have all the information,” Holcombe said.
Brown said he would return at the next council meeting with the results of his conversations.