Council hesitant until economic situation comes clear
By Sondra Murphy
It was a “show me the money” moment during last week’s Ojai City Council meeting when the subject of amendments to city personnel classifications came up.
City staff will have to wait until council members see the budget before they have a chance at upgrading some job positions.
Amendments to certain positions in the city’s personnel classification system were brought to the board last Tuesday in an effort to make city salaries more competitive with regional agencies.
City staff recommended the council give two positions pay raises to closer reflect other county agencies pay scales: planning and building technician and assistant to the city manager. Staff also recommended a third position be established, that of redevelopment manager. That job is currently being filled by an independent contractor. City attorney Monte Widders said auditors have advised the position should be converted into a part-time contracted position in order to be in accordance with IRS guidelines.
With the impending retirement of the assistant to the city manager, a search for her replacement has been under way. The city manager’s office went through an application process in late 2008 that resulted in two candidates. Unfortunately, both turned down the job, citing the low pay. Increasing the salary range was an effort to find a highly qualified person to fill the role.
“I’m sure that these are good ideas and need to be done, but my question is why now?” asked Councilwoman Sue Horgan. “We have no idea how our budget will be next year. I think we need to consider the economic market right now.”
“The timing is coincidental,” answered city manager Jere Kersnar. “The issue of the IRS ruling has been bubbling for years, but the assistant to the city manager position just became vacant. This was one of her tasks to complete before retiring. Whether you can afford it or not, this is the right thing to do from a legal perspective.”
In regards to the assistant to the city manager, Councilwoman Carol Smith said, “It’s clear to me if we don’t go to Range 58, we may not get someone. The amount of staff time it took, including (Kersnar’s) was huge, then to have the person determined to be successful in the position turn it down because of salary, how much more time will be spent on this?” Smith then suggested the funds saved by staff time in finding an assistant to the city manager might compensate for the extra wages.
“I can see a need for it, especially in the assistant to the city manager, but when I look at the total cost … it’s like $30,000,” said Mayor Joe DeVito. He then asked why the position could not remain filled by an independent contractor.
“The requirements for an independent contractor status, according to the IRS, are very strict,” answered Widders. “There’s like 20 different criteria they feel you have to meet.” Widders added that if the indepen-dent contractor was determined to qualify as an employee, the city runs the risk of needing to pay back deductions not taken, which could be a burdensome retroactive amount. “Now that the auditors have made this recommendation, we could not claim in any type of good faith that we thought she was otherwise.”
Council ultimately rejected the personnel changes by a narrow 3-2 vote, with Councilmembers Steve Olsen and Smith in support of city staff’s request. “I can’t support this now, but that’s not to say I couldn’t later,” said Horgan. City analysts are expected to bring a city budget update to a February council meeting.