By MELINDA WILLIAMS
A vote by Mayor Jeff Worrell Tuesday broke a tie that gave Pulaski’s town manager the authorization to proceed with hiring a new finance director. Current director Sherry Boyd is retiring in June.
Vice Mayor Joseph Goodman made the motion to lift a freeze placed on the hiring of a finance director. Councilman Greg East, who wanted to downgrade the pay and qualifications for the position, cast one of the three dissenting votes. Heather Steele and Jamie Radcliffe joined East, while Dave Clark and H.M. Kidd voted with Goodman.
Under Robert’s Rules of Order, only one of the four council members who voted in February to place a freeze on filling the position could make a motion to reverse the decision. Goodman was one of the four.
He changed his mind only after being informed by Town Manager John Hawley and town attorney David Warburton that downgrading the pay of the finance director position likely would result in having to downgrade other employees’ pay since the town adopted a pay scale program several years ago.
It was Goodman who suggested the issue of the finance director be placed on the agenda for Tuesday’s work session. He said he thought it would be good to continue the discussion in light of a letter Warburton sent to council. He did not indicate what the letter said and it was not made available to the media.
Worrell suggested council move forward with filling the position because it could take multiple years to determine whether the county will be able to collect taxes for Pulaski. Plus, he said, the town’s finance department “has been disrupted because they don’t know what the future holds for that department.”
East said the issue of who will collect the taxes and whether to fill the position are two separate subjects in his opinion and “I’m going to separate those two.”
He said the New River Valley Planning District Commission has agreed to help the town and county at no cost with regards to the tax collection study. Goodman said county officials seemed receptive to the PDC’s help, so East proposed the study proceed.
At that point, Warburton pointed out a third party is being left out of the discussion: the treasurer of Pulaski County.
“The treasurer’s office of the county, while it may be countywide, is not part of your county government. It is a constitutional office. There are really three parties to this discussion if you choose to pursue it: the county administration, our own administration and the separate office of the treasurer of the county,” he said.
He added that it’s a common misconception that the county government runs the treasurer’s office, pointing out that County Administrator Peter Huber doesn’t supervise in any functional way the county treasurer’s office in the same way Hawley supervises the finance department for the town.
“If the town government and the county government decide they want to do it, we’ve left out one person we need to ask as well,” he said.
Goodman said he thinks that’s one reason the county felt the process could take multiple years because if the treasurer refuses to collect the town’s taxes, it would put a halt to the whole process. He said he would hope the treasurer would at least be willing to look into it, but “the county cannot tell a constitutional officer what to do.”
At that point a motion by East to invite the PDC to act as a “neutral third party” in the study and to direct Hawley to contact the treasurer and county to seek their cooperation passed unanimously.
At that point, Worrell said he doesn’t think the hiring of a finance director is a policy decision since the tax study is a separate matter. He said it is his opinion council can tell Hawley how much money he has to hire a director, “but that’s about the end of it.”
Kidd said he thinks it’s time to move forward with filling the position so the new employee will have time to work with Boyd before she retires.
East said he talked with the town’s auditor, Deanna Cox, “In an effort to gather all of the information I could on this subject.”
He said it is his understanding from that discussion that not having a director in place for a short period of time “would not be the end of the world. It’s something we certainly don’t want to do long term, but it’s something that if we go 60 or 90 days while we assess the qualifications for this position, it’s certainly not going to be a dire situation.”
He said the town is currently seeking a CPA with five years auditing experience, but Cox didn’t feel it was necessary to have a CPA, but that it would be more important to have someone with government accounting experience.
As such, East suggested the position be “downgraded as a budgetary measure to save money” and not necessarily require a CPA. He said he sees that as a win because it will fill the position, address concerns and “significantly” lower the cost of the position, thus enabling the town to address some of the town’s capital needs.
In a letter to East, Cox points out that tax collections “is a small piece of what the town’s finance office does.” She said moving collections to the county “MAY save the town a position” but it “most likely would not be the finance director’s position.”
She added, “The finance office currently collects not only taxes, but utility bills and other revenues, in addition to processing the town’s accounts payable and payroll. In addition, the finance director assists with the budgeting process and interim financial reporting required during the year.”
Cox said “while it would be possible for the town to operate for a short period of time (potentially July-August) without a finance director” if the office had “a qualified individual to fill in temporarily, keeping in mind that July and August are the times when the finance director and her staff are working with the consultants to prepare for the town’s annual audit – in addition to all of their regular duties.” She noted that the town needs to consider impact on its internal controls when considering potential staff vacancies.
Cox went on to say that Pulaski might “be able to save a little bit of money” by seeking non-CPA candidates or someone with no or less auditing experience. “I feel that a candidate with local government experience would be as valuable as a CPA, but wouldn’t come with as large a price tag,” she added.
East said downgrading the position will meet the needs of the department and save money, but Worrell said he disagrees with both of those statements.
Worrell presented a list of salaries for 13 communities in Southwest Virginia, including all of the New River Valley. At a salary of $70,782, Pulaski (population 9,068) ranked seventh among the jurisdictions, with the lowest salary being $40,325 in Pearisburg (population 2,786) and the highest being Blacksburg at $114,255 (population 42,620).
“We’re already below the middle on finance director salaries and there are, in fact, three communities that have less population than we do that pay their finance director more, so I think downgrading the position more financially wouldn’t be the prudent thing to do if you expect to attract and retain a qualified finance director,” said Worrell.
Kidd agreed. He said he thinks leaving the employees in the finance department in limbo is just putting additional burden and stress on the department.
Clark said he took Cox’s statements to suggest the department could get buy without a finance director temporarily in a dire situation, but there are specific tasks required at that time “that are extremely important to our financial status as a town. I’m not really comfortable with putting ourselves in that position” since audits affect the town’s credit rating.
East said he is merely suggesting council “step back and take a look” at the possibility at saving money on the position while meeting the needs of the town so it doesn’t end up in the position “where we have a higher paid position than we really need.”
Hawley said he thinks the advertisement states that a CPA would be preferred, but not required.
Worrell said it bothers him to suggest the town is hiring a director at a salary higher than it needs to be when the data shows “we’re trending in the other direction.” He said it’s his position that the citizens and the staff are owed an “orderly transition” to a new director.
Goodman said the qualifications in the ad state, “CPA or five years auditing experience.”
In response to the mayor’s information regarding salaries, Goodman said, “I’m not a fan of determining salaries or positions in this town based on what our neighbors are doing.” He said he doesn’t think it’s necessary for the town to “jump off a bridge” with another jurisdiction if they choose to.
“We have to make our decision based on what’s in our budget and what our citizens need,” said Goodman. “I don’t take our neighbors as a decision point. I determine what happens here.”
Ironically, since the new council was seated July 1, it has asked staff on at least five other occasions to make comparisons with other communities with regards to property maintenance, noise ordinances, moped regulations, contributions to non-profits and other agencies and town manager salaries.
In fact, on an issue discussed prior to the finance director position, East offered to try to pull some information together on how other areas handle sponsorships of town events. Goodman said he didn’t see any harm in taking East up on his offer.
Goodman noted there is a lot of responsibility in the finance director position and the candidate should be “compensated accordingly for it, but there may be a question whether the salary matches what is required.”
Hawley pointed out that the finance director is classified at grade 12 or 13 on the salary classification plan council enacted around 2005-2006. He said council may wish to revise the salary range for the appropriate grade, but it could impact the salaries of every employee in that grade since the pay is determined by a point system.
Radcliffe asked Boyd if there isn’t someone in her office who has been trained to “step up and take your place when you retire?”
Hawley said that would be a decision for each employee to make and file an application if interested in the position. He said any employee in the town can apply for whatever position they desire.
Asked what pay range was advertised, Hawley said he believes it was between $40,000 and $70,000.
“So, realistically, it could come in at a lower amount than what’s listed here,” said Goodman, referring to the salary listed on the comparison list.
Hawley said it could.
Goodman suggested council could lower the ceiling by removing a 5 percent increase applied to salaries in 2012 due to changes in Virginia Retirement System contributions.
East said the range would drop even further by removing the CPA qualification from the ad.
Warburton reminded council of the pay classification system and the fact that “you’re going to have to look at the violence you do to the other employees” in that pay grade if the high end of the salary range is reduced. He pointed out all of the employees have to be treated equally.
“So, if you change the range with this job in mind, you must affect everyone else in the same pay band as far as minimum and maximum,” he said. “On the other hand, if you change the responsibility level” so that it drops the position into a lower pay grade “I guess you can do that, but you have to be careful because you’re affecting other employees” and council has chosen the pay grade system as “the way the town manager fills positions in this town and he’s ultimately responsible for that.”
In response, Goodman apologized and said “as a state employee stuck in the joy of pay bands … I should have remembered that we don’t really have the ability to do that without regrading positions.” He said Warburton is right that you can’t change one salary in a band without affecting them all.
Clark said it sounds like council is assuming that the person who is hired is going to get the same pay as someone who has been in the position for multiple years. “I don’t see that as being the case, so I’m not sure we even have an issue here,” he said.
Goodman said he thinks the pay scale issue leaves council at a standstill. He pointed out that being a CPA isn’t a requirement in the ad, so the question remaining is whether to lift the freeze on filling the position.
East said he would like to have more information on the pay bands.
Kidd tried to make a motion as such, but Worrell pointed out it had to be made by someone who voted for the freeze in February.
At that point, Goodman made his motion.