Citizen Staff Writer
City workers scramble to do more with less
There is a receptionist’s desk in the lobby of City Hall, but rarely is there a receptionist.
He has moved to the city’s election division and has been replaced,
most of the time, by a sign: “City Clerk’s Office 9th Floor.”
Walk into the fifth floor Finance Department with a question, and you’ll have to ring a bell.
Following the ding, you’ll probably hear soft, quick footsteps as Kathy Maish comes running to help you.
She runs because that’s her nature. She’s quick and helpful. It’s also because now she’s really, really busy.
“What can I do for you?” she asks, a little flushed, as she appears from around the edge of the former receptionist’s cubicle.
Like employees most everywhere, Maish and other city workers are
being asked to do more with less, to perform a greater variety of tasks
and to step into responsibilities that, as some have whispered, may
exceed their pay grade.
The financial crunch now bearing down on sales-tax-dependent
municipal governments comes just as those same governments are
contending with baby boomers reaching retirement age, which could mean
the sudden loss of a large number of people who will take with them a
large amount of know-how.
Tucson’s administrators have tried to control the impact of those
departures with sweetened retirement packages, reducing slightly the
long-term payout in pensions and mandating that retirees provide a
Years of planning went into the retirement packages. But now, with
pension investments swinging with the markets and sales tax income
falling sharply, the city can’t replace those who have left, not in
experience or even in numbers.
So far, even with the city’s financial struggles, changes in service
in other departments have been small but accumulating, mostly visible
to Tucson residents in longer waits, shorter hours and fewer
Expect court cases to take longer, longer response times for
nonemergency calls to police, more time for records to be produced or
graffiti to be painted over and more mistakes in records as the ranks
of clerical workers shrink, city employees said.
City Manager Mike Hein offered incentives to retire to civilian
employees after he took Tucson’s top administrative job in 2005. The
same year, the Legislature approved the state Public Safety Pension
Retirement System’s plan, offering officers and firefighters an
extraordinary five-year deal involving an 8.5-percent interest rate and
a 2003 retroactive start date.
The 8.5 percent interest rate was a better rate of return than most
investment plans could offer, especially this year with the sharp
downturn in the stock market.
The number of employees leaving the city has accelerated in the past
year and a half for reasons both demographic and benefits-related. In
fiscal year 2008, which ended June 30, a total of 426 full-time
employees left the city’s employ.
But in just the first three and a half months of this fiscal year, 306 full-timers have left.
September was the crescendo.
At the end of September – the end date for a round of especially
sweet retirement incentives including paying sick time at 1.5 times the
hours accumulated – city offices seemed to empty, leaving the remaining
employees chatting in the elevator about the newfound ease of finding a
parking spot in city lots.
More than 150 civilian employees retired that month, as well as six
police officers and two firefighters, according to public safety
retirement board records and city finance analysts. The city now has
about 5,400 full-time employees.
About two-thirds of the 240 employees who have left since December
took an incentive package and left in September, Rentschler’s figures
But it won’t stop there. At least 100 more are signed up for Hein’s End of Service plan, according to human resources records.
Retirements will continue
Deputy City Manager Mike Letcher said municipal governments across
the country are expecting the retirement wave to continue for at least
another five years.
Administrators present the recent losses as somewhat of a relief, an
alternative to layoffs and the result of careful planning and
foresight. Department heads see it as an opportunity for restructuring
but a challenge to maintain services and morale.
For support staff – hit hardest by eliminated positions – it just means more work.
“It has changed around here,” Maish said, gesturing to the seemingly empty fifth floor.
3,371 years of experience
It’s not just people, but also resources and history that Tucson’s
government has lost. In a single month – April – the 124 people who
signed up for the civilian retirement incentive program represent a
combined 3,371 years of experience and institutional knowledge that
will only be around – maybe – another six months.
With 39 employees retiring from Tucson Water since May, “600 to 700
years of experience walked out the door,” the department’s director,
Jeff Biggs, said.
Most retirees have worked for the city for between 20 and 35 years.
Letcher said the retirements mean savings and a rethinking of job
descriptions that was necessary despite the economic volatility of past
months. The loss of institutional knowledge was planned for in the
program, he said.
“We started thinking about this way before the financial downturn,”
he said. “This allows us to plan. Otherwise, we could have as little as
two weeks’ notice. We want to make sure that information is passed on.”
Consideration of potential financial trouble started a year ago when
Hein offered employees extra money for sick time and longevity
incentives if they retired by the end of September.
That caused a small part of the city’s current $50 million budget
shortfall – about $3.4 million had to come out of the fiscal year 2008
general fund to cover it, according to a September budget briefing
presented to the City Council.
The return, however, was $5.5 million in savings from eliminated,
vacant and downgraded positions, Letcher said. About 165 positions have
been eliminated, records show.
The city is still looking for about $10 million in savings, with the
decision on where that will come from scheduled for Dec. 11. The
retirement incentive program is set to last through 2010.
In the meantime, department heads are looking to save where they
can, scrounging dollars from travel budgets, office supplies and even
“We’ve saved about $1,000 just through ordering fewer calendars,”
said Joan Harphant, administrator of City Court. “I jokingly say I’ve
turned the courthouse upside down.”
Because of statutes governing how courthouses are run, few services can be cut, she said. So she looked at raising fees.
The defensive driving diversion fee was increased from $80 to $100
on Sept. 26. The case processing fee, levied on people found guilty,
will double from $10 to $20 on Jan. 1, she said.
Harphant said together the fee hikes are expected to bring in an additional $850,000 next year.
In the big picture, the added revenue will help the city balance the
books. But for employees, it’s no light at the end of the tunnel. No
new employees will be hired for roles deemed “non-critical” anytime
“We expect this to last a while,” Harphant said. “Lines are
increasing at the front counter. Lines on the telephone are increasing.
Employees are having to deal with more people each day. The stress
level, I would have to say, has gone up.”
By the end of the year seven City Court employees – one judge, one
supervisor and five support staff – will have retired, she said. Two
more employees are out on medical leave and may not return, and there
are whisperings about another two employees retiring.
Initially, Harphant thought those positions would be temporary vacancies. Now, only the judge’s position will be filled.
The budget-ax story is echoed across departments. Long lists of
vacant positions disappeared overnight. The Parks & Recreation
Department lost four custodian positions and a dozen recreation
assistants in one fell swoop. The Tucson Convention Center can’t hire
the 10 more workers it had anticipated. The Community Services
Department has 20 inspectors now versus the 25 it had last year. The
prosecutor’s office is down four attorneys. The Finance Department lost
seven budget specialists.
Effort is being made to be flexible, to keep, to the degree
possible, city workers in work. Employees are being moved around to
positions in the same pay grade, supervisors said. For example, former
copy techs have been moved into the city’s warehousing operation, Mark
Neihart, director of the Procurement Department, said.
To combat the loss in experience, administrators have been
cross-training employees. Attorneys are focusing on more specialties,
Development Services inspectors and plan reviewers are looking at
several kinds of properties instead of one and employees in the clerk’s
office go through regular rotations.
“If there was any good news in folks retiring, it was that we knew
for a long time,” Parks & Recreation Director Fred Gray said. “We
kind of had a knowledge dump.”
It’s not all bad news around City Hall, though. The withering
economy has actually helped some departments adapt to their shrinking
“We’ve been fortunate in that development activity has decreased as
a result of the economy,” said Ernie Duarte, director of the
Development Services Department.
Duarte said that because of the building slowdown and structural
changes within Development Services, plans and permits are being
approved faster than usual. Average turnaround times have recently
dropped from eight months to four, he said.