Short-staffed county struggles to do business

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer July 05, 2013 10:26 pm

County commissioners are not even a week into the 2013-2014 fiscal year and are already scrambling to juggle employees around so such basic jobs as transcribing minutes, manning desks and answering phones are done.

They see it as a sign of times to come, as the county clerk next Wednesday plans to ask them for help with duties in that office, as well.

With the resignation of administrative and economic development director Jan Hayes this month, and the temporary leave of another employee for almost the whole month of July, the Board of Commissioners office is barely able to conduct business, said commissioners’ assistant Terri Perez.

But getting employees’ shifts covered won’t be easy, commissioners learned.

The county board last week passed a $55 million budget, of which $2.1 million is in the “discretionary” spending general fund that pays for most county services, primarily law enforcement. Those funds are inadequate to fund county operations, which has forced commissioners to lay off half its personnel and spin off entire departments into nonprofit organizations.

And through all this “fat-cutting,” commissioners wonder if they’ve hit bone.

The major problem is that the staff shortage has Perez answering phones and helping the public at the office window — thus leaving meeting-minutes transcribing a lower priority, which is required by law.

“There’s committees, your work sessions, these odd minutes from 2009, 2010 — there’s 50 meetings worth (of minutes to be transcribed),” Perez said. “There’s public transit type of meetings, the compensation board. …”

The minutes aren’t easy to transcribe as it is. First, they must be taken from the audio, video and broadcast equipment that records every public meeting, and placed on a CD. Perez takes that CD to her computer to watch the meeting and transcribe the minutes.

“The computer doesn’t have the ability to fast-forward or rewind,” she said. “You have to keep an eye on it so you can pick up where you left off. You can’t run all the systems and tools. That slows it down and won’t allow you to do certain things.

“And that’s not going to solve the problem with the door, being open from 8 to 5,” she added. “Or answering the phone.”

Commissioners agreed County Attorney Jerry Herbage’s legal assistant Brenda Starbird, whom he recently brought back on board to address backlog issues in his own office, might be able to help in the commissioners’ office.

“We had a lot, a lot of backlog,” he said. We’re not really covered. Our records are in horrible shape. It’s not a good situation. We can’t do everything we want to do anyway; there are 10 million projects that need to be done. We had such an emergency in our office, we had to bring (Starbird) on.

“If you want use of her on a temporary basis, you need to make that decision.”

Although details have yet to be finalized, Herbage and county commissioners ran through the few opportunities they have to pay for that work, as there is no budget item for temporary help.

“It’s mean taking more money out of the working capital,” Herbage said. “You have the money, but it’s a matter of how deep you want to spend. These budgets are very thin.”

Starbird is already on the payroll, making it that much easier to have her work in more than one office. But if Perez were to get sick, the office would be strapped again. Commissioners Wednesday were interviewing candidates for Hayes’ position.

And next Wednesday, commissioners will face the same short-staff conundrum, when representatives of the clerk’s office come asking for help.