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.