Staff cuts put clerk on edge
July 17, 2002
The Pitkin County commissioners faced their first serious challenge yesterday to the way they are managing a budget crisis.
The commissioners told Clerk and Recorder Silvia Davis she would have to make due with one less employee, just like other departments, even if that means less service for the general public.
The county is currently grappling with a $1.9 million budget shortfall resulting from lower-than-anticipated sales tax and land-use fee collections. In January, the county commissioners and their top managers agreed to eliminate six unfilled positions and order an across-the-board 5-percent cut in operating expenses. Layoffs and further cuts became necessary last month after it became apparent that revenues were falling far short of expenditures.
A hiring freeze implemented last month has resulted in the elimination, at least temporarily, of two more jobs in the community development department. And now it appears a third is on the chopping block at the clerk and recorder’s office.
But the difference between Davis and many other department managers is that she is elected and does not serve at the will of the county commissioners. That fact gives Davis more leeway in managing her department and more freedom to directly challenge the commissioners.
At the outset of yesterday’s meeting, Davis challenged their wisdom by asking if the commissioners would replace the finance director if she were to leave.
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The commissioners said they would. To which Davis answered that she thinks the hiring freeze has a certain randomness to it that defies the common-sense management needed to handle a crisis like the one currently facing Pitkin County.
Reducing the staff at the clerk and recorder’s office, which organizes an enormous amount of information for both the county and the state in areas such as licensing, elections and real estate transactions, doesn’t necessarily make sense, Davis said.
Davis said she has a long list of cuts in services that would eliminate 40 hours of work per week from her office, including several that would directly affect the county commissioners.
“I was very, very, very concerned when this vacancy appeared in your department,” said Commissioner Shellie Roy. The reason for the concern, she explained, was that Davis would conclude that “the way to get the BOCC’s attention is to cut that which affects the BOCC most.”
The cuts include revising the way her BOCC clerk takes minutes so that only action items – the actual ordinance or resolution, motion for approval or denial and votes – are recorded. Assistant clerks would stop proofreading all documents coming out of commissioner meetings to make sure they reflect the will of the commissioners, leaving that task to whichever department is responsible for the issue at hand.
Research assistance to the public and county staff regarding real estate transactions or minutes of past county commissioner meetings would also be cut. Automobile emissions testing would be eliminated. And there would be changes to the way public notices are reviewed prior to their publication in The Aspen Times.
The list unsettled the county commissioners.
“How many hours have actually been eliminated, and how many have been passed on to other departments?” asked Commissioner Dorothea Farris.
Mick Ireland and Jack Hatfield both admonished Davis for suggesting changes in the way minutes of commissioner meetings are recorded. They noted that meeting minutes are critical in a county that is under constant threat of lawsuits by wealthy landowners who don’t get all the approvals they want.
Hatfield and Farris both suggested that Davis simply make people wait in line longer, freeing up clerks to do more nonpublic tasks. Ireland suggested that she close her doors earlier. Hatfield added that she could close the doors an hour each day for lunch.
“We made a decision about this hiring freeze, and I think we need to stick with it,” Hatfield said.
Commissioner Shellie Roy accused Davis of manipulating the cuts in order to come down hard on the county commissioners.
Of just under 40 hours of work Davis is proposing to cut, 24 hours come from tasks connected with the county commissioners. About 15 hours of the work cut from Davis’ department would likely need to be picked up by other departments.
“This is a disservice to the organization – to redistribute work to lessen your work load when the whole organization is suffering,” Hatfield said.
“They may see it that way,” Davis said after the meeting, “but these are all tasks we do that are not statutory requirements, and I am trying to look at saving time any way I can.”
The meeting ended with Davis agreeing to look at some of the commissioners’ suggestions. But the fact is she can make most of the cuts without consulting the commissioners. The only one they have a say on is the emissions program, which remains in effect for now.
[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]