Council eyes city staffing levels

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Local News

August 28, 2018 - 11:34 AM

Employee levels within Iola’s city operations will be under the microscope over the next few months.
City Council members over the past several meetings have pushed for a full study of the city’s workforce, asking City Administrator Sid Fleming to determine if departments could function as efficiently with fewer employees.
Staffing cuts, if so prescribed by such a study, would be done through attrition only, Council members agreed.
Still to be determined is whether a study should be done in-house, or whether an outside firm should be hired.
The cost of such a study, or the amount of time Fleming must dedicate to the analysis if he handles it, will play a role in which route the Council chooses.
Likewise, the city must also decide on the scope of the study.
The 30-minute discussion was kick-started by a question from Mayor Jon Wells.
“Can we agree (cuts) would be through attrition?” he asked.
Most of the council members nodded in the affirmative.
“The least of all evils,” Councilwoman Nancy Ford responded. “That way we’re not firing anybody, we’re not laying anybody off.”
She spoke about potential budget savings if and when long-term employees retire, because they tend to have the highest salaries with the most accrued vacation and sick time that is partially reimbursed upon retirement.
“That’s a big chunk of money,” she said.
Ford suggested the city begin looking at the largest departments first — fire, police and street and alley — “and work our way down.”
“The only question I have,” Councilman Gene Myrick said, “is on the number of departments that have two people performing the same functions. If there are some positions where we have two people performing the same job, we need to look at it.”
Myrick singled out the Iola Recreation Department, saying it has two directors and an administrative assistant.
In a call to the department this morning, the Register confirmed the department’s staff consists of Jason Bauer, director, Ryan Latta, assistant director, and Kristie Sutherland, administrative assistant.
“I’m not saying cut them or get rid of them, but once that position comes open, can we justify not filling it again?” Myrick continued.
Councilman Ron Ballard said Iola should look at staffing levels at similar-sized cities, preferably ones that operate their own electric department for a more apt comparison.
But Councilman Aaron Franklin objected to the study’s objective.
“We’re approaching this from the wrong direction,” he said. “We need to look at staffing, and whether we have the right people in the right positions for the right reasons, instead of just looking at cuts.”
What happens, Franklin asked, if the study indicates some of Iola’s departments are understaffed?
“If we go into a study trying to find a result we’re looking for, we’re going to fail before we get started,” Franklin said. “We need to go into it without as much bias as possible.”
With that in mind, Franklin said the city should consider going with an outside firm to handle the study, to eliminate any internal biases. The methodology behind the study is critical as well, he noted.
“You could pay me $20,000 and I’d write you a report,” Franklin joked.
Fleming said he “sent feelers” out to a firm that handles such studies. Estimates were the study would take the firm eight to 10 weeks, Fleming said, at a cost of about $20,000.
He assured Council members that if an outside firm were hired, he would seek bids first.
Ford suggested Fleming also look at programs offered by Wichita State, the University of Kansas or Kansas State University to determine if they could handle a study at a lower cost.
Fleming said he could do a study in eight to 10 weeks, but other big-ticket questions facing the Council — water rates, for example — would likely be pushed back.
Ford, however, wondered if Fleming needed to complete the study in such a short span.
“If we were planning major layoffs, that would be different,” she said. “We’re just looking to re-examine departments. That shouldn’t upset anyone. They’re still going to have jobs.”
“Really, we want to talk about a long-term plan through attrition,” Fleming concluded. “I also want to include Councilman Franklin’s thought: do we have the right people now?”

COUNCIL members approved the city’s 2019 operating budget, projecting expenditures of $31.6 million, down a shade from this year’s $31.9 million budget.
Ballard quizzed Fleming on the city’s unencumbered cash balance, projected at about $7 million by the end of 2019. The balance at the end of 2017 showed about $11 million.
“Is it fair to say we’re spending a lot of money we don’t report?” Ballard asked.
Not necessarily, Fleming responded. The unencumbered cash balance can fluctuate over two or three years because of more extensive capital projects. For example, this year the city spent about $351,000 on a mill-and-overlay project through town, using funds saved up over the past few years.
Additionally, the new Capital Improvements Plan includes reserves no longer counted in the unencumbered funds, Fleming said.
The lower cash fund also includes planned expenditures for electric generation over the next year, Fleming added.
Ballard also asked if Fleming expected to ask for rate increases for Iola’s utilities.
The only pending request, Fleming responded, was to hike water rates. The council rejected a series of rate increases earlier this year, leaving the budget about $200,000 in the red, even after the Council agreed not to transfer any water fund reserves to the General Fund, and making this year’s $600,000 loan payment out of the Capital Reserves Fund instead of the water fund. The loan payment goes to the construction of the water plant in 2005.
Council members heard from Jonathan Miller, a self-described county coordinator for the Libertarian Party of Allen County.
He asked a number of questions, such as whether the city would be better off considering hiring a company to do private trash service and the city’s mill levy to support the Bowlus Fine Arts Center.
“In my ideal world, the Council would keep in mind the absolute priority, to keep taxes low,” Miller said.
The budget was approved with a 7-1 vote, Ford opposed.
Council members also accepted, 8-0, the city’s 2017 audit review by Meta Titel, a certified public accountant with Jarred, Gilmore and Phillips.

THE CITY WILL up the amount of money it pays for employees’ health insurance to cover an 8.2 percent increase in premiums.
The city pays $401.92 for a single employee, and $906.07 for employees utilizing family plans. The family plan includes a $250 contribution from the employee.
Those premiums will increase to $440.80 for single plans and $953.85 for family plans, with employees still contributing $250.
The Council voted 7-1, Ballard opposed, for the increase.

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