Vero Beach leaders facing possible staffing cuts

VERO BEACH — Two years into a recession, the City of Vero Beach may finally have to make serious cuts in staffing to keep property taxes low and to attempt to bring city electric rates closer to Florida Power & Light rates.

While other local governments for more than two years have been making staffing cuts and other reductions as growth slowed and real estate values plummeted, Vero Beach leaders instead sought to hold on to staff. The city employs about 22 staffers per 1,000, compared to the more populous Sebastian which has a 5.7 per 1,000 ratio. Vero Beach has an even higher per capita staffing rate than Indian River County, which inclusive of the fire department and Sheriff’s office, still employs only 10.1 employees per 1,000 residents.

“I want to make sure that the employees know that we’re looking out for them and we’re looking out for the public as well,” Mayor Kevin Sawnick said at the last City Council meeting on Feb. 16. Sawnick’s comments were a follow up to statements he made a week prior, proposing 10 percent municipal staffing cuts across the board.

The upcoming budget year presents several challenges to the city, including depressed property values, anemic state cost-sharing revenues, rising health care premiums and the pension plan. The council, however, added another challenge to staff – do whatever it takes to match Florida Power and Light’s electric rates.

“Clearly we’ve got a problem here, we’ve got to figure out a way to drastically reduce the expenses of the city,” said Heady, who last month challenged the city’s Finance Committee to brainstorm about the budget and come back to the Council with recommendations.

One of the areas the city is looking to cut expenses is human resources. Excluding the electric utility, the City of Vero Beach employs 22.4 per 1,000 residents. Including the electric utility, the city employs 28.4 per 1,000.

Indian River County employs four staff members per 1,000 residents if you don’t count the more than 230 members of the countywide fire department — 5.7 per 1,000 if fire employees are counted.

Including all the county constitutional offices — Sheriff, Tax Collector, Supervisor of Elections, etc. — there are 10.1 employees per 1,000 residents.

The city’s 28.4 employees per 1,000 residents would have been even higher, but according to City Manager Jim Gabbard’s letter to the City Council on Sept. 15, 2009, 26 positions were deleted and 20 vacant positions frozen in the lead-up to the 2009-2010 budget.

When he first saw these numbers, Mayor Kevin Sawnick got an earful from local residents who are hurting due to the economy. Faced with citizen complaints and media coverage about the high cost of government in Vero, he told members of the Taxpayers Association on Feb. 10 that a 10 percent cut in staffing seemed appropriate.

Sawnick said he hoped whatever cuts are made are based on some rationale about the critical need for the position and the actual work product that staffer produces. He even suggested the city bring in an efficiency expert to study the continued need for positions in city government.

“We should know what this person is doing in 40 hours per week. If what they’re doing should only take 10 hours per week, we should know that when we’re making these decisions,” Sawnick told the Taxpayers’ group.

As a state corrections employee himself, Sawnick said he is both cognizant that these are tough times and has empathy for employees who haven’t received raises in several years.

Sawnick — voluntarily and unilaterally — took a 5 percent pay cut in his own Council salary in solidarity with municipal employees.

“It’s hard to have hope when you don’t hear much encouragement from your bosses,” Sawnick said. “We’re all concerned for our jobs.”

Commissioner Bob Solari, at the mayor’s request, provided information about an employee idea program called SHINE, which has saved the Polk County government $6.4 million over the past decade.

Indian River County took a 22 percent budget cut this year, trimming $83 million in expenses and eliminating 41 positions, placing the county at a 30-year low level in staffing. The City of Sebastian instituted 5 percent furloughs, shut City Hall down one scheduled day per month to save on utilities and fuel, combined a few departments and cut at least five jobs, including the Deputy Police Chief position.

During budget workshops, Gabbard estimated the city would have entered the year $3 million in the red, but that $1.3 million in mid-year cuts brought the city up to a $1.7 million deficit.

At the time, Gabbard said the city had cut “dozens of jobs,” mostly by attrition as employees leave or retire. The Police Department, which employed 94 people in 2009 and still employs 94 people, did cut its overtime by $200,000 to help balance the books last year.

Recreation took a large hit, with the elimination of five full-time and five part-time jobs, resulting in the layoff of three people. No further job cuts, other than non-replacement of open positions, were announced for the current fiscal year.

Water and Sewer Director Rob Bolton said he plans to include the elimination of six water and wastewater employees in a third quarter budget amendment next month.

In the 2009-2010 budget cycle, Vero Beach increased employee health premiums slightly and, on the job front, introduced 5 percent furloughs on a rotating basis so City Hall would not have to close, at an anticipated savings of $1 million.

“We’re going to be monitoring our situation monthly and the only place we can go is layoffs,” Gabbard said.  “It’s positions and services that we’re going to be affecting going forward.”

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