A seemingly throwaway line in an otherwise auspicious financial report has heightened the angst among Burlington’s city council about the historically high vacancy rates in some of the city’s departments.
During a monthly work session on Monday, held by the Zoom teleconferencing platform, several members of the council expressed their dismay about the large number of openings in areas like public works, where a shortage of garbage collectors and other key workers has contributed to a departmental vacancy rate of about 14 percent.
Ironically, the city’s shortage of workers is one of the factors that has placed the city in a rather enviable financial position based on an update that the council received on the fiscal year that ended in June of 2021.
During Monday’s work session, Burlington’s finance director Peggy Reece delivered a report to the council in which she acknowledged that both revenues and expenditures had beat expectations for the city’s previous financial cycle.
“There are many more jobs than there are employees to fill them. . . and that’s across the board – top to bottom.” – Burlington’s finance director Peggy Reece
Reece noted that an Internet sales tax which the state implemented in 2018 helped drive up the city’s revenues during the past fiscal year. According to her figures, the city’s sales tax receipts exceeded the budget’s revised projections by about $3.6 million thanks, in part, to the proceeds from online transactions.
This windfall in sales tax receipts contributed to an overall increase in revenues for the city’s general fund, which surpassed $65.4 million by the fiscal year’s end. This sum represents a jump of nearly $4.1 million over the general fund’s revised budget, which reflected various midyear adjustments to the original spending plan for the past fiscal year.
Reece also presented the council with some reassuring results on the other side of the ledger, where the general fund’s outlays came in at about $2.1 million less than the revised budget’s estimates. The city’s finance director went on to attribute this decrease to capital expenditures that weren’t consummated by the end of the year as well as chronic vacancies in some areas of municipal government.
Although Reece didn’t initially linger on these staff-level vacancies, their potential implications raised the eyebrows of several members of the city council. These misgivings ultimately prompted the city’s finance director to confess that hiring has, indeed, become a hardship for many city departments.
“There are many more jobs than there are employees to fill them,” she said, “and that’s across the board – top to bottom.”
Burlington’s city manager Hardin Watkins went on to mention a number of specialized positions that the city’s transportation and planning director has, so far, been unable to fill. Watkins also alluded to hiring difficulties in public works and the police department as well as areas where the city competes with the private sector.
The council received some added input on this point from assistant city manager Nolan Kirkman, whose area of purview includes the city’s public works department. Kirkman said that the city has made some salary “adjustments” and “reclassifications” in order to retain more employees in this unit and ramped up its recruitment efforts to fill the department’s vacant positions. He also alluded to a “skill-based incentive program” in solid waste disposal, where he conceded the vacancies have been especially numerous.
Kirkman nevertheless conceded has the vacancy rate in public works has climbed to about 14 percent – an admission that didn’t go over entirely well with councilman Harold Owen.
“I certainly hope we can reward them somehow,” the councilman said, “because 14 percent down in terms of employees is a substantial number. I don’t remember us ever being that high in the past.”
Kirkman’s observations about public works received some general confirmation from Jaime Joyner, the city’s personnel director, who admitted that the city has seen its applicant pools steadily dry up for many positions. Joyner added that this same trend has also emerged in other jurisdictions that compete with Burlington for labor.
In the meantime, Kirkman acknowledged that the remaining employees in understaffed areas like solid waste disposal are working harder than ever to meet the demands on their units.
“They’re getting the job done,” the assistant city manager added. “Supervisors and superintendents are driving trucks. It’s all hands on deck.”