Flush with the prospect of cash from a $74 million bond referendum, Asheville city leaders have scrambled to find enough staff to get its bond projects off the ground.
To lead a new Capital Projects Department that will manage bond-financed construction, as well as the city’s capital improvement program, City Manager Gary Jackson tapped Jade Dundas, the Water Resources Department director. Dundas’ Jan. 16 appointment set off a game of musical chairs that’s resulted in a number of city departments and groups being led by interim appointees.
The city’s human resources director, Peggy Rowe (who’s been on the job just five months herself), says a total of 22 city employees are serving in interim roles. Those include David Melton, interim water resources director; McCray Coates, interim Streets Services Division director; Diane Meek, interim development services director; Amy Deyton, interim stormwater services director; and Polly McDaniel, acting communications director. [Editor’s note: On June 9, city Communications Director Dawa Hitch notified Xpress that she has returned to the office.]
And Paul Fetherston, the assistant city manager who oversees eight city departments, including the police and fire departments, is leaving Asheville on June 9 to take a position in Lake County, Ill.
The city has about 1,200 employees, Rowe says. A total of 80 positions (including about 20 in the Police Department) are currently vacant, but the city’s Human Resources Department is actively seeking to fill 27 spots. In a March 28 memo to City Council, Rowe wrote, “There are areas where the city is experiencing unusually high turnover,” but she didn’t speculate on the possible causes of the turnover.
With just over 1,500 employees, Buncombe County has 64 vacant positions, according to county Human Resources Director Curt Euler. The county doesn’t have any departments led by interim directors or managers, Euler said. A process for finding a replacement for longtime County Manager Wanda Greene and Tax Director Gary Roberts, who will both retire July 1, hasn’t yet been determined.
The city’s largest numbers of vacancies are found in its Police and Public Works departments, according to Rowe. Though recent public attention has focused on Police Chief Tammy Hooper‘s revelation that her department has struggled to fill 20 positions, Rowe says she doesn’t have data on average turnover in the department. Still, she continues, the city is committed to finding ways to address its police staffing challenges. “We are looking at salaries and other factors and endeavoring to understand why people are leaving that organization,” Rowe says. “I can’t speak to the root causes at this point.”
Recruiting police officers is a challenge many cities face, Rowe notes.
But based on Euler’s estimate of five or six openings at the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, the county seems to have an easier time recruiting law enforcement officers. One reason for the difference could be that the county also employs detention officers at its detention facility next to the Buncombe County Courthouse, Euler says. Those officers often apply to the Sheriff’s Office when positions become available. Unlike the city, Euler points out, the county doesn’t run its own police academy, requiring, instead, academic law enforcement credentials and providing on-the-job training with field training officers.
At the city, other difficult-to-hire functions include code enforcement officers, building plan reviewers, certified equipment operators and accountants, says Rowe. Meanwhile, at the county, “Social worker positions are pretty hard jobs,” says Euler, noting that turnover in those positions is higher than the county average.
“While we would love to hire more,” says Euler, “it’s not like we have a shortage of people.” According to a presentation Euler gave county commissioners on May 16, about a third of county employees had been with the organization for one to four years, while a fifth had served between five and nine years, and over 15 percent had been employed for 15-19 years. The city did not provide comparable information.
In an area where residents often bemoan the low wages and limited job opportunities available, the pay and benefits that municipal positions offer look pretty appealing. While the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce tagged the average per capita income in the Asheville metropolitan area (which includes Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties) at $26,023 in 2014, the city and the county offer far higher annual compensation.
With an average wage of $51,966, the county appears to pay considerably better than the city, where the average is $38,500. Both those figures exclude the compensation of executives, and the differences also reflect two workforces with different missions. For example, the county provides health services but doesn’t maintain roadways, while the city is responsible for over 400 miles of streets and nearly 200 miles of sidewalks.
The city and the county handle compensation adjustments differently. The city includes pay raises (or cuts) in its annual budgeting process. The proposed city budget for the fiscal year that will begin on July 1 includes a 2.5 percent increase for all positions.
The county adjusts compensation for all benefited employees each April, based on the consumer price index at the end of the previous calendar year. In April, county employees received a 2.2 percent raise.
Foot in the door
“There’s a desirability to living in Asheville and working in Asheville, so we have a unique advantage there,” Rowe says of the challenge of hiring city employees. At the same time, she continues, it’s a job seekers’ market, so the city must ensure it is offering a competitive pay and benefits package and selling the value of a career in public service to prospective employees.
Asked about how longtime locals can get a piece of the action, Rowe says, “We have positions in roles that are administrative, police, economic development, community development — there are lots of opportunities here.” She encouraged folks to apply, noting that, “Once you get on board, the sky’s the limit” as a city employee.
Meanwhile, the wheels of the hiring process turn slowly. Of positions like the city’s newly created equity and diversity manager and the oft-vacated chair of the development services director, for which Rowe’s department has retained specialized search consultants, she says a hiring decision should be made “soon.” When the city uses a search firm, the average cost for that service ends up being about $20,000 to $25,000 per position, Rowe says.
So as the city vies for candidates in a competitive job market characterized by low unemployment, it seems likely that the game of musical chairs among departments and titles won’t come to an end in the immediate future.
Though upbeat about the advantages the city of Asheville offers its employees, Rowe concedes all the temporary placements can make figuring out where the buck stops more difficult in the interim.
“It’s challenging for citizens, and it’s challenging for the organization,” she says.