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Council votes to retain vacant positions, for now

Monday, March 28, 2016 by Jack Craver

How big of a problem is an unfilled position in city government? Is it even a problem at all? A brief City Council debate on Thursday illustrated some strong differences of opinion among city leaders on the issue.

Prompting the discussion was a proposed ordinance that would have reappropriated funds allocated for seven city positions that have been vacant for over a year. The ordinance was drafted by city staff in response to a request from Council last year that it present the body with a list of city jobs that had been unfilled for more than 12 months and offer it the opportunity to eliminate the jobs permanently.

Ed Van Eenoo, deputy chief financial officer for the city, informed Council that three of the seven positions were in fact in the process of being filled and that the others would likely be filled soon, and therefore staff did not recommend that they be defunded.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair voiced concern at the rising number of vacant positions in city government, noting that the rate had climbed 2 percent in the past year to just under 10 percent of all positions. She pointed out that Mayor Steve Adler had said during his 2014 campaign that he would aim to keep the vacancy rate at 5 percent.

“I am still concerned by what seems like a high vacancy rate to me,” Troxclair said, although she said she was happy not to see positions that had been vacant for many years.

Van Eenoo attributed the increased number of vacant jobs to the fact that Council created a number of new positions in last year’s budget and city agencies haven’t gotten around to filling them yet. And in some instances, he said, Council has sought to balance the budget by delaying the hiring of new employees by authorizing only nine months of funding for a position, instead of the full 12 months.

Council Member Don Zimmerman proposed that two of the vacant jobs on the list – an associate judge position for the municipal court and an airport operations chief – be eliminated. Taking unfilled jobs off the roster was a good management practice, he said. If they are truly needed, city staff will have to come back and justify re-creating them.

“That’s a good exercise to have to justify spending taxpayer money,” he said. Allowing positions to remain unfilled makes it “trivially easy” for the city to spend money, he added.

Other members pushed back, with Council Member Delia Garza pointing out that the airport position would not put money back into the General Fund because the airport is funded through a separate enterprise fund. Council Member Leslie Pool argued that unfilled positions are not costing taxpayers, since the money allocated for the position isn’t being spent. Furthermore, said Pool, there are costs associated with eliminating and creating positions.

“(I)t takes time, effort and money to re-establish a position in the roster,” she said. “It’s not as simple as adding a name in or a job title in. Taking a position off of the roster is not trivial, just as adding a position isn’t trivial.”

Pool also suggested that vacancies in city government are a product of the country’s and the region’s improving economies. “It’s hard to get the best employees these days because the unemployment rate is so low,” she said.

Adler also said he didn’t support the idea of killing positions on a “one-spot” basis, and he added that he was pleased to find out that there weren’t as many long-term vacancies in city government as many had assumed.

Zimmerman’s motion failed, 2-7, with only Troxclair supporting the measure. Council members Sheri Gallo and Greg Casar were absent.

As for the original ordinance that would have eliminated all seven positions, Adler pointed out that Council did not have to take any action on it if it wanted to retain the jobs.

But Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said she wanted to send a message to staff in support of keeping the positions and urged that Council vote to reject the ordinance. Council heeded her request, voting 7-2 to reject it. Again, Troxclair and Zimmerman were in the minority.

“The ordinance is defeated, rejected, overruled and message sent,” chuckled Adler.

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