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Committee tweaks, approves Council staff boost

Tuesday, March 31, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

This Thursday, City Council members will once again take up the issue of increasing their own staff.

Last week, the Council Audit and Finance Committee considered the proposal for a second time. Members voted unanimously to recommend adding 12 full-time positions — one for each Council office and two for Mayor Steve Adler’s office. Most of the lengthy discussion centered around funding the positions and how to make the projected $1.2 million annual increase “budget neutral” moving forward.

Committee members also recommended that all new positions would return to their original positions in their original departments next year without an affirmative vote from Council during the budget process. That suggestion was a response to the concern that Council has yet to identify a permanent source of funds for the new positions.

City Chief Financial Officer Elaine Hart said they could make the change this year by using empty positions in other city departments. However, she added, the city manager wanted to restore the positions to their original departments at the end of the fiscal year to avoid negatively impacting the programs and departments from which they had been taken.

Luckily, options for budget cuts will be handy when Council members consider making the changes permanent. Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo said that staff was already at work identifying possible budget cuts in order to implement a proposed homestead exemption. Last year, city budget staff calculated that a 20 percent exemption would cost about $36 million.

“One of the things that staff is doing right now is looking at potential service reductions that could be made in order to offset the cost of a homestead exemption,” said Van Eenoo. “I think in the context of that, you are going to see a whole bunch of options about how Council could potentially make some cuts. Some likely would have service reductions, but that could also be used for this task.

“We don’t want to increase the budget. We hear that loud and clear,” Van Eenoo continued.

The original proposal would add five full-time positions in Adler’s office and $25,000 for part-time staff in each office. That proposal also suggested that they pay new hires no more than the current highest salary in the mayor’s office. Using that figure, the annual cost for 12 new staff members would be about $1.2 million each year, including benefits. Van Eenoo has estimated that cost will be about $550,000 to hire more staff for the remainder of the year. That includes one-time costs for office furniture and computers, which he predicts will cost about $90,000.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair said she wanted to minimize the fiscal impact of the staffing change, specifying that she would not support additional office space and hoped to use an extra desk currently in her office.

Troxclair said that having the plan carried out in a budget-neutral way was a very important part of her support.

“Come budget time, I will want to make sure that we aren’t just saying that it’s budget-neutral now, but intending on adding $1.2 million in staff. Because my understanding was that we could have this done through utilizing vacant FTEs in other departments,” said Troxclair.

Van Eenoo said that his office has found a way to create five extra positions until the end of the year without a budget amendment, but has not yet done so for 12 full-time positions. At the time of the committee meeting, he was still working out those details. Committee members also suggested that they base new salaries on the average Council staff salary in an effort to save money. Though that will cost less, it remains unclear how much less.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said that her preference would be to make the change during the city’s budget process “and really (think) about it within the context of our other pressing needs.”

“There’s just a lot in flux,” said Tovo. “However, there is clearly a lot of interest among the Council for providing for additional capacity in the immediate short-term.”

Tovo pointed out that if the money comes out of the city’s support services fund, it will reduce the money that the city pays toward enterprise funds and the general fund. She cautioned that the change would have an impact “down the road.”

Committee members shied away from an alternative plan to have most of the new staff located in the mayor’s office. Though Adler has offered assurances that the staff would be there to assist all Council offices, Council Member Pio Renteria expressed concern that such a setup could lead to violations of the Open Meetings Act.

 

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