Bend plans 15 biennium hires

Improving finances allow city to fill police, fire, code vacancies

By Hillary Borrud / The Bulletin / @hborrud

The city of Bend plans to hire at least 15 workers during the next biennium, adding police, firefighters, an engineer and other employees.

City officials expect to bring in more revenue from property taxes and sewer and water rate increases for the next two years. Filling some of the police and fire jobs that went unfilled during the recession is a top priority for city councilors. Thanks to an increase in property values and construction, the tax rolls will likely grow enough to pay for two new police officers, at least two firefighters and other workers.

“It’s improving tax assessed value revenue to the point where it’s giving us some confidence to be able to hire some positions in police and fire and streets,” City Manager Eric King said.

The sewer and water rate hikes will pay for major infrastructure projects, and the city needs more workers to supervise construction and operate the utilities.

It’s a significant staff increase, although small compared to the number of jobs the city shed during the recession. During the last five years, the city reduced its staff by nearly 20 percent, or about 110 jobs, through a combination of layoffs and attrition.

The city estimates it will collect 4.3 percent more tax revenue during the next two years than it did in the current biennium, an increase of roughly $1.9 million, according to analysis of the proposed budget. Water rates would increase 3 percent and sewer rates would increase 6 percent annually under King’s budget proposal, although King said the actual rate increases could be different in the second year of the biennium because the city is in the middle of adjusting the model for its rates.

The city budget committee approved King’s plan last week and recommended hiring one more firefighter than King proposed, for a total equivalent to three full-time firefighters and one part-time firefighter. The City Council will vote on the proposed $494 million biennial budget in June.

The net increase in city staff will be closer to eight employees because the city currently has roughly six unfilled jobs, according to King’s budget proposal. Human Resources Director Rob DuValle said the majority of unfilled jobs are for command staff in the Fire Department, where former Fire Chief Larry Huhn left these jobs open to avoid laying off firefighters. “They’re running on a skeleton crew at the top of the organization,” DuValle said.

At the Police Department, Lt. Chris Carney said three fewer sworn employees are employed today — 84, including everyone from traffic patrol officers up to captains and the police chief — than in 2006.

“In 2008, we were supposed to hire 12 people,” Carney said. “That’s when the crash happened and all those positions got wiped out.”

Residents might not notice much change in police services if the city hires two new officers, but it will prevent police from falling further behind on work they would not have the time to do, Carney said. “I think it’s going to help at least slow down the backlog, because I don’t think our population is going down,” Carney said.

Last year, the City Council asked Police Chief Jeff Sale to report on the potential impact of police budget shortfalls. Sale told councilors that depending upon workload, detectives might soon stop investigating all property crimes and thefts of property worth less than $100,000, unless the incident is part of a series of crimes or the victim is over 65 years old. Sale also said that by 2016, detectives could stop investigating sex abuse or rape, unless the victim is a child younger than 14 years old, someone with a disability or older than 65.

“Hiring people is going to really help put that type of thing off,” Carney said of the possible service reductions.

In the Public Works Department, the city will likely add two employees to its engineering staff because of a policy shift to do more of that work in-house and use fewer consultants. “We’re taking a more active role in project management,” King said. “We’ve just got an enormous amount of infrastructure work to do, and catchup to all the growth. We need people to manage those projects moving forward.” Mayor Jim Clinton has said he would prefer to hire city employees to do more of this work, rather than rely on consultants.

The city will also hire a lab technician in the Public Works Department to handle additional testing required for stormwater and at the water reclamation plant, which is undergoing an expansion. Another new utility worker would work in operations at the reclamation plant. The city also plans to hire another full-time street maintenance worker and a part-time equipment operator, King said.

King plans to hire an information technology employee to help replace the citywide computer operating system. That employee will only remain with the city for the duration of the software project. The city will also likely hire a land-use planner.

Lastly, the city’s one full-time code enforcement worker, Senior Code Enforcement Officer James Goff, will get more help. Goff has been receiving some assistance from a part-time code enforcement technician, and the city will add another employee or turn the part-time job into a full-time position to increase its code enforcement presence. The additional staffing would allow the city to do a better job of enforcing a law that requires property owners to keep flammable vegetation under control, Goff said. The city could also do more to require property owners to remove invasive weeds. “There’s been a pretty serious outcry from the community in the last few years just because noxious weeds are out of control,” Goff said.

“Hiring a second person is basically just trying to get us back to status quo,” Goff said. “We are the largest city in Oregon that has essentially one full-time person on code enforcement.” Code enforcement plays an important role in keeping the city attractive, which is vital to economic growth, Goff said.