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Council frustrated by stalled projects

Staff shortages are blamed for the city’s failure to complete non-motorized work.

The City Council on Monday expressed frustration with the mounting list of stalled transportation and downtown improvement projects.

“We seem to have a great deal of difficulty doing capital projects,” Councilman Nezam Tooloee said at a Monday meeting to discuss the 2007 city budget. “I see a pattern here over the last 10 years. Of the $88 million (for capital projects), only $55 million of it has been completed. There’s a big bulge moving through the system.”

Some councilors were particularly concerned about the progress of non-motorized transportation projects and Winslow Tomorrow initiatives funded last year but still left undone.

“I don’t understand why non-motorized can’t get done,” said Councilman Bob Scales, who underscored the high priority the council has placed on bike lane and trail improvements. “We’ve put $2.5 million toward this over the last two years and we have precious little to show for it. I don’t know how much more clear the City Council can be. We’ve provided all the funding required and the only project that will be constructed this year is on 305 – and that’s because we piggybacked (on a Washington State Department of Transportation project).”

Scales said he was particularly concerned about stalled non-motorized transportation upgrades on Grow Avenue and near Wilkes Elementary School, which were slated for construction this year.

But these projects can’t get done unless the city adds more engineering staff to manage them, according to Public Works Director Randy Witt.

“The short answer is that we have a large work program but don’t have enough staff to manage the program and deliver that work,” Witt said.

Witt estimates his department must contend with about a 25 percent staff turnover rate each year. Public Works over the last year lost two key staff members, including Roger Mustain, who served as the city’s lead engineer, and Tom McKerlick, who oversaw non-motorized transportation improvements.

The department has also had difficulty filling two temporary engineering positions. Few qualified engineers have applied because the positions are limited to one year, according to Witt.

City Administrator Mary Jo Briggs acknowledged the concerns, but underlined her desire for more full-time staff.

“I understand (the council’s) frustration,” she said. “It’s hard to be here and say we can’t deliver. But if you want us to deliver, you have to give us the staff. I don’t know any other way we can do it.”

Councilman Jim Llewellyn urged his colleagues to give the administration the helping hand it has requested. “I think the administration has a sincere commitment to get the work done,” he said. “We’re going to have to rethink our views of a ceiling for full-time employees.”

The council Monday agreed “in concept” that some engineer positions should receive salary increases, and approved the conversion of one temporary engineer position into a full-time position.

The council will further discuss public works staff recruitment and retention in the coming months.

Some councilors advocated a more conservative approach toward capital projects in the future to avoid swamping the department’s engineers.

“The bottom line is that we bit off more than we can chew with our (previous) budget,” said Councilman Chris Snow.

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