Help wanted in Cheney, but not just yet
City holds off on replacing vacant city administrator, parks director positions until late spring, early summer
When it comes to hiring a replacement for recently departed City Administrator Arlene Fisher, Cheney is taking the same approach it did when Parks and Recreation Director Paul Simmons left in November 2013 — wait.
Mayor Tom Trulove doesn’t anticipate a search replacing either leadership positions will commence much before late April or May. Right now, he feels he and other department heads have things in control running the city’s daily operations.
Trulove has several reasons for holding off on filling both positions, one of which is financial. Both Fisher and Simmons received significant cash-outs of accrued vacation and sick leave, and in a tight budgeting year, the city needs to use the savings from the vacancies in the general fund budget.
According to information from the Finance Department, both Fisher and Simmons were at the top tier of their salary ranges under the appropriate city ordinance in place at the time of their departure. Simmons was making $6,913 a month, with Fisher pulling in $10,095 a month.
In an email, Deputy City Clerk Keri MacDonald explained that, per ordinance, sick leave is cashed out at 100 percent for the first 240 hours, and 25 percent for the remainder for non-union employees, department heads and city administrator. Vacation is cashed out at 100 percent up to 240 hours.
“As a note, the City Administrator usually has a contract so that would be followed for that employee,” MacDonald added.
Both elements combined led to vacation and sick leave cash out checks of $20,051.04 for Simmons, $37,535.94 for Fisher. Per ordinance, neither department head was eligible for compensation for overtime hours.
“All the salary ordinances go before the City Council,” Finance Director Cindy Niemeier said.
Savings from not paying a Parks and Recreation director will go towards paying down an interdepartmental loan, Trulove said. Most of the department’s saved up resources were spent in helping replace the Wren Pierson Community Center after the original building was damaged from heavy snows in 2008.
“We thought we would have the revenues from program fees and usage to pay off the loan in five years,” Trulove said. “Well, that didn’t materialize.”
Human Resources Director Mark Schuller is currently serving as acting director, but Trulove feels the department staff is seasoned enough and capable of running the operation themselves. He would like to have a new director in place by summer, however, as the city will face the challenge of beginning the final phases of the 50-acre Park on Betz Road.
Cheney received a state grant to fund most of the construction, but needs to have that completed by June 1, 2015 or the state might ask for its money back, Trulove said. Schuller and Public Works Director Todd Ableman have a plan in place to install bathrooms, a parking lot, sprinkler systems and hydroseed fields this summer, possibly using volunteer help. Fences added next year would complete the work.
As for city administrator, Trulove said that search could take longer and be more involved. For starters, the candidate needs to be familiar with and understand Washington state laws.
Trulove said the candidate must also be someone who can understand and work with Cheney’s main industry — Eastern Washington University. It’s an aspect made even more intriguing by the fact Eastern is also in search of a leader as current president Dr. Rodolfo Arévalo will retire this July.
Trulove said there’s also a relationship with another key player, the Cheney School District, which any city administrator must have skills to maintain and enhance. And there’s the challenge of being a small city operating on a budget based on just over 11,000 “night time” residents that faces the obstacles of being a medium-sized city of over 25,000 during the day.
Add in the city’s salary range is lower than many other cities, and it makes for a difficult position to fill.
“We’re not going to be in among the top payers, we’re Eastern Washington after all,” Trulove said. “(And) they’ll have to get used to hearing ‘No’ because we don’t have the money.”
Finally, and importantly for Trulove, he wants to find the right individual who is a leader, a presence, and someone who commands respect from employees, city council and citizens.
“I’m going to be looking for a person who relates well to the community,” he said. “You can’t teach character.”
John McCallum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.