Greensboro city manager: Hiring freeze considered ‘modified’

by Jordan Green

Addressing city employees at the Odeon Theater in a presentation meant to assuage anxiety over $18 million in planned budget cuts, City Manager Rashad Young said last week that a hiring freeze in place for more than two years should be considered “modified.” Upwards of 200 employees were present at the Odeon for the talk. Assistant City Manager Denise Turner said 350 employees logged on to the city’s website to view a streaming video of the presentation, while employees also gathered in other locations to hear the talk. Young fielded questions from employees, who submitted them anonymously in writing to staff who gathered note cards from the audience. The first out of the gate: “How are new employees continuing to be hired outside of police, fire and safety as we have been told we are under a hiring freeze? We continue to see administration hire new employees.”

“There are critical positions all across this organization, both from an administrative perspective and operational perspective,” Young said. “What we do is selectively make decisions about what positions need to be filled to deliver on the operational missions of various departments and agencies. We’ll continue to be judicious as we make those decisions.”

Former City Manager Mitchell Johnson first imposed a hiring freeze in 2008, prior to Young’s hiring. The city website indicates, “The city has enacted a hiring freeze for all positions except sworn positions in police, fire and Guilford Metro 911. Any other positions posted are those that have been reviewed and approved by the city manager as being critical to the operation of the organization.”

The city is currently advertising an open position for a planning and community development director, some summer parks and recreation jobs and part-time jobs at the coliseum without benefits, while directing prospective employees to the police and fire department websites for information about openings in those respective agencies. Young discussed his Management, Accountability and Performance program, which is designed to analyze performance within departments to determine whether they are supporting various missions, including economic development, public safety and infrastructure, in a holistic manner. “I know some of you have concerns that MAP is an effort to identify positions to eliminate in your organization or an employee evaluation tool,” Young said. “However, that view simply misses the boat. Instead, MAP represents our report card as an organization. It shows how we’re doing the heavy lifting…. Most importantly, it provides a strategic guide that cuts across every city department and agency so that we can see and understand our common focus.” The city manager singled out a number of departments for “service excellence.”

Young said Greensboro has a “renowned parks and recreation department.” He spoke of a library system “that’s transformed itself to be a critical part of the social fabric of the community.” He lauded the city’s fire department as the only one in the state “to maintain the highest rating possible.” “We maintain a bond rating that has consistently been among the highest rated,” Young said. “And we have a water system that is a billion-dollar asset that opens the doors for economic development and growth in our region.” Young indicated that unless the city council reverses position on ruling out a tax increase and seeking significant spending cuts, employees shouldn’t get their hopes up about either merit raises or performance bonuses during the next fiscal year. “I can tell you that if we, in fact, have to cut $18 million or 7 percent of the general fund, it’s highly unlikely we’re going to be able to afford another increase,” he said. Young said senior staff has not given serious consideration to implementing employee furloughs to save money, but acknowledged that might be an option as the city nears a decision on the budget.

“I really want to find sustainable ways to reduce expenses so we can correct what I call a structural imbalance in our budget,” he said. “So we can’t have an over-reliance on one-time resources to resolve our budget. We’ve done that last year, and we’re going to do a little bit of that this year, but if we use onetime resources I’d rather that not be from the employee pay side of the house unless we absolutely have to, which means I would consider furloughs as a bit of a last resort.” Some questions to the manager revealed a degree of interdepartmental envy or skepticism about efficiency that any taxpaying citizen might hold.

“When the fire chief talks about cutting $900,000 to save money, we hear the police chief wants to buy the old federal building for $900,000,” one anonymous employee said.

“What’s up with that?” Young said in response that while the two figures are the same, no inference should be drawn that they are connected. He said that the federal building is valued at $22 million, but the federal government would sell it to the city for $1. The $900,000 price tag would be the cost of renovating it and moving the police department in. Half of that cost would be funded by the federal asset forfeiture program. The cost to the city’s general fund would be only $450,000, which would be spread over three years. Another employee asked how the coliseum complex has continued to undertake new building projects in an era in which the city’s budget has been strained. Young responded that the aquatic center is being funded with $12 million in voter-approved bonds and $6 million in certificates of participation, which is debt backed by the hotel-motel tax. Other building projects are supported by sponsorships and state funding.

In other city news, Young recommended reducing a debt package planned for next spring from $35 million to $30 million and delaying construction of the Lake Jeanette Library in north Greensboro. The proposed reduction is aimed towards restraining spending on debt service as the city grapples with flat growth in revenues from property taxes.

Council members attending the briefing gave no indication of whether they will approve the recommendation. One member who was not present was District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny, whose represents the area served by the library.

Matheny said by e-mail that he is disappointed “that the Lake Jeanette Library has the potential to be postponed.”

Young also said he will not recommend a water rate increase this year. But the city has two significant water-related costs looming on the horizon.

One major cost is retrofitting the TZ Osborne Waste Water Treatment Plant and the North Buffalo Waste Water Treatment Plant to comply with nitrogen removal requirements of the Jordan Lake Rules. The council, led by Mayor Bill Knight, is asking the NC General Assembly to delay implementation from 2016 to 2020, but Water Resources Director Allan Williams said the city is going ahead with preparations in case the request is not granted and also because the city’s current permitting agreement dictates that it do so.

Williams also said the city needs a new sewage pump station to accommodate projected industrial development in eastern Guilford County, which would be expected to expand the city’s tax base. The planned Intermediate Rock Creek Pump Station, with an estimated price tag of $8 million, would intercept sewage at a location near Interstate 85-40 and Stewart Mill Road, and redirect it northward toward TZ Osborne.

Williams said that if Assistant City Manager Andy Scott, who is responsible for economic development, “brings us one more data center or anything besides a warehouse that uses no water, we’re not going to have enough capacity.”

The combination of the Jordan Lake Rules compliance requirements and the cost of the new pump station will require a 5.5 cent rate increase in the 2012-2013 fiscal year and 10-12cent increase the following year, Williams said. The city has not calculated the additional cost of operations stemming from the Jordan Lake Rules, which will begin in 2015.