By MELINDA WILLIAMS
An attempt to impose a hiring freeze until the town of Pulaski passes its 2013-14 fiscal year budget was thawed Tuesday night when the motion fell victim to a 2-4 vote.
Passage of Councilman Greg East’s motion could have resulted in the need to call a special meeting of Pulaski Town Council to fill vacancies within departments, such as public works, where there is often frequent turnover.
For example, if the employee who mows Oakwood Cemetery quit, town staff would not be able to fill the position without seeking council’s approval through a special-called meeting, Mayor Jeff Worrell pointed out.
Worrell said he doesn’t see where a hiring freeze is needed because “I’m entirely comfortable with the way (vacancies are) handled now.”
Town Manager John Hawley said he already has to approve the filling of vacancies requested by department heads. He provided council members with finance department budget sheets showing that full-time positions within the town already have been reduced from 124 in 2002 to 108 in the current fiscal year. He said that doesn’t include grant-funded positions that weren’t filled when the grants expired.
“In previous budget years, there have been periods of time where a vacancy was not filled immediately. When positions have become vacant in the past, staff has looked at not filling these if it was possible to reassign their duties to other staff members,” said Hawley.
Hawley also noted that many vacancies have been filled with lower-paid entry-level employees.
Tuesday night’s discussion was a continuation of discussion from council’s September work session when it was suggested council might be trying to micro-manage the town.
At that time, town attorney David Warburton advised council they could control the number of employees in each department by virtue of the amount of money appropriated to that department’s budget. However, he cautioned against getting involved in hiring of specific positions, saying it could be a violation of the town’s charter requiring a town manager/council form of government.
Tuesday night, Warburton said council can impose a hiring freeze, but he asked that it be done through the budget and not by getting into individual departments.
“Yes, you can do a hiring freeze, but whether you want to is entirely up to council,” he said.
East said his intention behind a hiring freeze is not one of micro-managing, but rather trying to put the town in the best and most flexible position to prevent the need for a tax increase or staff reduction at budget time next spring or summer.
“It was never town council’s intent to micro-manage,” said East, “but it was my intention to reduce costs through attrition.”
Referring to the level of revenues the town will have come the next fiscal year, he added, “We don’t yet know what we face. We owe it to ourselves to be as flexible as possible when that time comes.”
Fiscal years run from July 1 to June 30. Since a new budget typically isn’t approved until May or June, passage of East’s motion would have meant special meetings would have been required to fill any necessary positions that became vacant from now until passage of the next budget.
Vice Mayor Joseph Goodman said council’s goal is to avoid possible layoffs at the end of the (fiscal) year and to increase capital needed for the town’s infrastructure.
“And not have a tax increase,” East interjected. “I don’t think it’s town council’s place or desire to be involved in the hiring process, but it is to be in charge of the budget and” use the town citizen’s money as efficiently as possible.
Councilman Jamie Radcliffe seconded East’s motion to not fill any position vacated due to resignation, retirement, dismissal or death until after adoption of the 2013-14 budget.
“I’m opposed to it because I don’t think it’s necessary,” Worrell said of the motion. “I’m comfortable staff isn’t filling any position they don’t need to fill.”
Worrell said he can’t see where the hiring freeze would gain anything for the town, but he can see where it would hinder function of the town.
“I think you’re fixing something that isn’t broken and, sadly, with bureaucracy that’s not needed. I don’t think we know better than the department head or town manager whether a position needs to be filled.”
Councilman David Clark told East he understands his intentions, but he thinks council would be getting into a “gray area” with his proposal. He said he thinks it would be a disservice to the citizens for council to suggest it knows better than staff whether a position is crucial.
“I can’t see having a special session of council to hire someone to mow grass in the cemeteries,” Worrell said.
Hawley said the freeze also could impact Pulaski Fire Department. For example, he said a firefighter recently left the department and if there was a hiring freeze the department would have been forced to reduce from three shifts to two.
“We wouldn’t put the positions in the budget to start with if we didn’t think they were needed,” Hawley added.
East said a special meeting could be called in such a case. He said he doesn’t intend a hiring freeze to impact public safety.
Pulaski Police Chief Gary Roche said a hiring freeze until passage of the next fiscal year budget will prevent him from sending anyone to the police academy for training until January 2015, unless he can hire an officer that is already certified. In the past he has indicated it takes about a year to get a new hire fully prepared to handle the job without close supervision.
Only East and Radcliffe voted in favor of the hiring freeze. Goodman, Clark, Councilman H.M. Kidd and Councilwoman Heather Steele dissented.