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Ashland government employees face a tight squeeze

The city faces hard choices as it addresses a $2 million budget gap

The top brass of Ashland’s city government are in the midst of an uphill climb to close a $2 million hole in the city budget.

But city staff are facing a different kind of mountain — an extra workload from an excess of empty chairs around them.

“Ultimately, we’re a service organization, it takes people to provide service,” City Manager Joe Lessard said Tuesday at a special City Council budget meeting.

All Ashland city departments are pockmarked with vacant positions. Some spots are unfunded, some are under a hiring freeze, waiting for the thaw of a balanced budget.

Some departments are feeling the sting of a high turnover rate that started in 2018. High turnover hamstrings productivity and costs the city more money in recruitment and training — a vicious cycle that often encourages people to seek new jobs and puts an even greater dent in the general fund.

The department most effected is Parks and Recreation, which is eight full-time employees shy of a full staff, and is also missing four temporary employees. Parks and Recreation is one of the largest departments in the city, and it faces a significant challenge with budget cuts looming.

The police department has four frozen positions, two in patrol and two in the records department. Police Chief Tighe O’Meara told the council that the police force has also experienced painful turnover, including four officers with multi-decades of experience who retired in 2021.

The fire department is feeling the squeeze of three unfunded positions.

“None of our firefighters can be on vacation or have sick leave without pulling another firefighter into overtime,” said Alison Chan, city finance director.

Staffing shortages like this force a catch-22. With the budget tight, it’s difficult for the city to pay overtime. With the departments short-staffed, it’s almost impossible to avoid overtime. Chan’s own Finance Department is under stress with five unfunded positions.

Some staff are doing the work of multiple people, as in the case of Sabrina Cotta, assistant city manager, who has taken over the some of H.R. duties and all of payroll.

Because so many heads are wearing multiple hats, some work is going undone.

“The City Recorder lost her support person,” Lessard explained, “so there is a pile of papers that aren’t getting scanned [into the computer for records]. I would estimate we are six months to a year behind in scanning papers.”

Lessard has felt the pressure himself.

“When I arrived, I would very much have liked an administrative assistant. My determination was that I couldn’t afford it,” Lessard said.

Lessard described his approach to working with a short staff as “catch as catch can,” borrowing time from available employees in nearby offices or departments on a task-by-task basis.

Some on City Council believe the city government is adequately staffed, and possibly too large for a city as small as Ashland, with its 20,000 residents matched to a city government of 248 full-time employees. The city of Medford has 473 full-time employees serving its population of 82,098.

Councilman Shaun Moran described the solution as case of hard choices.

“When I look at other communities, for example Medford, they have the ability to transfer FTEs [full-time employees]. You are the de facto CEO of our town, you have the authority to do that. That’s something you definitely should be considering,” Moran said.

Lessard responded that transferring employees from one department to fill holes in another was an option to consider, but he believed it would be difficult to execute it properly.

“The difficulty is, who do you transfer, and what is their ability? Transferring certain people could put an additional burden on the general fund that we may not be able to afford. Do we take them from police? Do we take them from fire?” Lessard asked.

The council was forced to end the second special budget meeting of the week Tuesday without voting on several matters related to the general fund. The meeting was extended an additional hour, going until 8:30 p.m., but that was not enough to move through the weighty agenda.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.