City staff share manpower woes at budget work session

Public works employees
TRUCKLOAD OF TALENT: Department directors in Asheville city government say recruiting and retaining qualified staff, such as these public works employees, is a major challenge. Photo courtesy of the city of Asheville

Good help is hard to find, at least for the city of Asheville. At City Council’s Nov. 13 budget work session, four department directors spoke about their troubles with obtaining bids on service and construction contracts, recruiting qualified employees and retaining current staff. Burgeoning activity in other parts of the economy, they said, had created stiff competition with government work.

“Contractor capacity is at an all-time low. I’ve had over 30 years in this business and I’ve never seen it like this,” said Greg Shuler, director of public works. “We are seeing contracts that we don’t have anybody to bid on, or we have one person bid on, and you can imagine what that does to your prices.”

Shuler’s department spent over $1.73 million on contracted services in the last fiscal year, with the majority (roughly $1.1 million) paying for a recycling contract with Curbside Management. While he said some of those services, such as approximately $300,000 in downtown cleaning contracts, could be brought in-house, finding and keeping permanent staff presents its own challenges.

“Our staff has a skill set that a lot of people out there are looking for,” Shuler said. “Whether it’s truck drivers, inspectors, engineers, we have a hard time attracting and retaining our staff. We’re not alone.”

Even the city’s marquee infrastructure improvements, funded by $74 million in bonds passed by taxpayers in 2016, aren’t attracting interest from enough outside companies. State law requires all public construction or repair projects to receive at least three competitive bids for a contract to be awarded on its first advertisement.

“We have to have three bids to open up a project, and that has been a challenge,” explained Jade Dundas, director of capital projects. “The first time in my career I’ve experienced zero bids was last summer, so contractor availability is a bit of a concern.”

To mitigate the problem, Dundas said, his department is shifting its bidding schedule into the winter, which would give contractors more opportunities for projects as they planned the year ahead. He also mentioned that his staff is surveying contractors to understand their challenges, as well as the possibility of city-sponsored training programs for contractor development.

In the city’s General Services Department, said Director James Ayers, the problem is particularly acute for small to medium-sized projects. With so much work taking place across the city for services such as building renovation, sprinkler installation and elevator repair, he suggested, tradespeople could take their pick of contracts. Outreach to “minority and disadvantaged business enterprises,” Ayers said, will be a key strategy for alleviating the work shortage.

Development Services Director Ben Woody hinted at the root cause of the problem as he explained his department’s hectic workload. Last year, he said, his 58-person staff had opened nearly 10,000 development records and performed over 52,000 on-site inspections — an indication of intense private-sector investment.

“You could make really good money right now if you’re an electrician, probably more than you could make as an electrical inspector. … When we’re busiest, the private sector pays the best,” Woody noted. While the department has added a career progression plan to give its building safety staff additional compensation over time, he said, attrition remains an issue.

But as interim City Manager Cathy Ball pointed out, private business isn’t the city’s only competitor for a limited base of expertise. “We are losing a large number of employees to the county at this point in time because of the difference in pay,” she said.

At the end of the work session, Council member Vijay Kapoor reminded his colleagues of their own role in encouraging employees to stay. He observed that Council had approved only a 2.5 percent increase in staff salaries instead of a previously requested 3 percent raise for the current fiscal year.

“As we go into the next budget cycle, as we’re looking at the ability to attract and retain staff, I think that’s something that we really want to take a hard look at,” said Kapoor.


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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the former news editor of Mountain Xpress. His work has also appeared in Sierra, The Guardian, and Civil Eats, among other national and regional publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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4 thoughts on “City staff share manpower woes at budget work session

  1. Robin

    What does that tell you when no one will even bid on a City project? It says to me that even though a company is in a business to do a specific kind of work (and assumedly to make money); the City of Asheville’s policies, procedures, and/or contracts are so onerous that they’re not even worth the trouble (or value) to bid on.

    Also, it may be worth noting that Asheville Public Works labor issues are mostly self-inflicted. Specifically, Ms. Ball had her version of “The Purge” while she was the Public Works Director, and she ran off or eliminated most of the tenured or skilled staff and replaced them with high paid engineers and inspectors. She then brought in Shuler (and others) from NC-DOT to run DOT’s contracting model in Asheville. Now he’s complaining because he couldn’t deliver, and the DOT model doesn’t working for municipal services, but he can’t go back to the old way because they eliminated the skilled people who used to do the work (fix streets, sidewalks, and collect leaves).

    Asheville citizens shouldn’t have to pay more because managers keep making stupid decisions. They need to fire the incompetent managers and bring in leaders who will restore the services citizens already pay for.

    • Lulz

      It’s par for the course. They look outside of Asheville to fill managerial jobs instead of promoting people in house with experience in the field. Why do you need a city manager from Charlotte? A police chief from wherever? What’s wrong with the people who have been city employees for years? The city is filled by college educated morons who choose the people. Nothing more, nothing less. Their minds don’t correlate actual working experiences with knowledge. These people think it comes from a book lulz. And that’s why they are getting into trouble. How many police chiefs have we gone through now? It’s indicative of who runs the show there and their absolute lack of thinking.

  2. Jeff King

    I won’t get political. But I will keep this simple. This has been a forthcoming problem for over 25 years in the making. We have removed trade/vocational classes and schools from All of our areas in the United States only to put an emphasis on academic achievements. This gives young people fewer outlets for a life/career whom might not want poor have the funds to continue in the academic world. I was a State licensed plumber for more than 20 years. It’s a well paying job that easily helped to supported my family. All the trade professions are heavily depleted at this point. The average age of a plumber, electrician, and heating and air worker is around 50 years old with NOT very many younger people even entertaining the idea of a quality well paying trade. It’s only fair to say that the service cost, to the client, will soon be so high that most people will not be able to afford a real emergency when one arises. And it will arise. We have got to stop dumbing down this country and give the young people an outlet for ALL of our future. Bring back trade/vocational schools and classes.

    • Lulz

      A lot of that has to do with low paying skilled jobs. I’ll say this again, Mission’s construction has flipped the area as far as pay is concerned. The jobs there are starting at 5 to 10 dollars more an hour on average than the local companies are paying.

      Vocational education has nothing to do with it. Many people learn skills via working their way up from helper to credentialed, i.e. on the job training . Problem is no one is getting into it because helper pay sucks. Or you have huge projects like Mission that pay more than anyone locally is willing to and taking all the GOOD help. So many have a choice to work in the mud for 12 bucks an hour or Home Depot, Wal-Mart,, or somewhere that’s easy for the same or even higher pay. Which would you choose?

      If you want new people then you have to give them something more than just a job. That’s not good enough anymore. Incentives, bonuses, and perks go a long way to not only bringing them in, but also retaining them.

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