Where to turn for city work?

t An ongoing dilemma at City Hall: new hires or outsourcing?

Instead of getting bigger, city staff was supposed to shrink, or at the very least hold steady.

That was the course suggested by the benchmarking study, which found that the island government uses more resources to accomplish less work than comparable cities. And the standard set last year, when the City Council voted to keep staffing levels static.

Still, since there’s more work than bodies at City Hall, tasks often are outsourced to consultants. Sometimes, that method is effective, said Public Works Director Randy Witt. Others times – as with the city’s ongoing water resources management – it’s more costly and less efficient.

“I really think that this is a cumbersome and expensive way to do this work,” Witt told members of the council’s Public Works and Transportation Committee last week. “But I understand the real need to keep city employees down, so this is what we’re doing. I think that will be the conversation – do we use some of the labor money again and continue this program or do we talk about doing this kind of work in-house.”

In this case, city staff have prepared a $108,500 contract with consulting firm Otak to assist City Water Specialist Jalyn Cummings.

The city’s water resources program studies ground and surface water quality, stormwater management and does other work required for permitting.

The program is short three employees and has fallen well behind as a result, staff members said.

Included in the scope of work for the seven and a half month consultant contract are day-to-day work, project management, communication and reporting, and $9,500 worth of ferry and transportation expenses, since the worker would have to cross Puget Sound each day.

At the end of the contract, the need for the work would continue, but the city would potentially lose the knowledge of the person and might have to train someone anew.

Alternatively, Witt and Cummings said, the city could make an exception to its own rule by approving the addition of a new permanent employee – number 153 – instead of leaving the work to consultants.

Doing so would cost $65,000.

The move was unanimously recommended by PWTC and will be considered by the full council tonight.

No layoffs are scheduled at City Hall, but as the city looks to trim costs amid financial difficulties, PWTC members said the change of course makes sense.

“If you’re going to be training them, my preference would be to try and retain staff we have first from anywhere in the city, before we outsource,” Committee member Kim Brackett said. “I just would just hate, if there are going to be layoffs or reductions, to have someone from the city not have a shot at this first.”

PWTC member Chris Snow agreed.

“I really think that this is something that we just gotta do,” Snow said. “This looks like a good way to do it. My only reservation was whether or not this fit with some sort of broader look at how the personnel resources can best be deployed.”

The city may do some tweaking internally as new City Administrator Mark Dombroski settles in and tries to lessen the blow of lagging revenue.

Cummings said it was difficult to find a qualified firm to bring on board. Of the six she talked with, only two were possibilities. The short duration of the contract was one problem.

“There’s a lot of things I need help with,” she said. “It was very hard to find someone to fit the bill. By the time you get somebody up to speed on all our different specialties...”

If the additional employee is approved, the city would begin a search later this month. The new person’s salary would come from existing budgeted utility revenues.

Witt said he thinks the move would be pay dividends immediately.

Whether it would signal a larger shift in how the city does business remains to be seen.

“We’ll show that we can do it better, smarter, faster in-house,” Witt said.

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