Leaders consider layoffs at Issaquah City Hall

November 22, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Leaders could trim the workforce at City Hall and merge some services as municipal government retools in response to recommendations from a consultant.

The recommendations, in a report released Nov. 18, call for Mayor Ava Frisinger and other leaders to restructure how city government handles development and planning.

The report is meant to offer a roadmap to streamline city services and improve communication across municipal departments. Changes stemming from the study could occur early next year. Some require City Council approval; Frisinger can enact others.

The report recommends reducing the municipal workforce by five to seven full-time employees — or up to 20 full-time employees if officials decide to outsource some services — although the consultant called for further study before any layoffs occur.

In order to corral development- and planning-related departments, the report suggests for the No. 3 official at City Hall, the deputy city administrator, to oversee building, public works and planning functions. (Deputy City Administrator Joe Meneghini retired in August after 11 years.)

“With program management and other things — although we have a lot of communication — we don’t always catch things,” Frisinger said. “It’s very critical to be as effective as we can, so I think that having a deputy administrator work in that particular role would be important.”

Staffers said communication is often disjointed across municipal departments, due to differences in organization, style and, notably, distance.

Municipal government is spread across a downtown City Hall, City Hall Northwest and other buildings. Because unifying multiple departments into fewer buildings is all but impossible, consultants said employees should focus on improved communications.

“We all talk about the good old days when all of us were in one building, which was City Hall Northwest, and of course that still wasn’t all of us,” Frisinger said, because some departments remained offsite.

The report urged city leaders to examine the 13 municipal boards and commissions, and consider merging some groups.

In July, Frisinger selected Seattle consultant Moss Adams to examine the Building, Planning and Public Works Engineering departments, in addition to economic development efforts. The city spent $50,000 to conduct the study.

Since Frisinger announced the reorganization study, Meneghini and Public Works Engineering Director Bob Brock retired. The impending retirements influenced the study timing.

In the same period, Economic Development Manager Dan Trimble departed for a similar post in Burien.

The openings present opportunities should city leaders decide to implement recommendations outlined in the Moss Adams report.

“This report, however, is not an implementation plan,” Frisinger said in a memo accompanying the report. “It simply provides a menu of suggested recommendations and ideas. It’s up to the Mayor’s Office and — in some cases, the City Council — to select which recommendations will be implemented.”

Moss Adams recommended staff reductions to reflect a change in funding for large-scale projects.

“The disparity requires some type of correction, as the city is unable to afford all planned capital projects, and is overstaffed relative to the forecast,” the report states.

The recommended staff reductions generated the most discussion among city leaders and inside City Hall after the report arrived.

“We know that staff reductions mean people, and we want to be sensitive to the people who are there,” Frisinger said in a later interview. “We also need to know if the departments see — which I think they said they did in Moss Adams — that there may be a need for reductions. We simply do not have the capital projects and the size of capital projects that we had at one point.”

Moss Adams lauded the city for a “committed, hardworking and diligent staff” and the relationships between city employees and the community.

The municipal workforce includes about 200 employees. Officials last laid off employees in late 2009 — and scaled back capital projects and trimmed expenses elsewhere across municipal government — in order to save about $7 million. The layoffs of 10 employees came after a hiring freeze and a voluntary severance program.

The scope and timing of possible layoffs in the future remain undefined, although no reduction in the workforce is expected to occur in 2011.

“We need to do something more structured than attrition,” Frisinger said. “It may be that somebody leaves a job whose function is extremely critical to a project or projects, and it would not be desirable to leave that particular function vacant.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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