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Vero budget cuts get personal, then become non-cuts

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of August 22, 2013)

In the eight weeks since the Vero Beach has been working on the coming year’s budget, the City Council has directed city staff to re-insert $1.3 million in spending and reinstate 15 positions that were set to be eliminated.

Each of these cuts was protested with emphatic and personal pleas, piling onto council members the responsibility that should be on the heads of departments – implementing budget reductions. Instead of setting overall policy, the council was faced with the unsavory task of laying off specific people.

“You can’t outsource the police dispatchers to the Sheriff’s Office!” the council was told. “You can’t take away Bruce Dangerfield, the animal control officer!” “You can’t fire Rita in the clerk’s office.”

Indian River County has managed to slash its spending by more than a third, getting staffing numbers down to pre-boom 2005 levels, cross-training employees, retooling job descriptions and merging whole departments. The Board of County Commissioners lays down a policy and the staff carries it out. It can be done, so why can’t the city do it?

“At the county, they don’t make it personal, but in the city they make it very personal,” said Councilwoman Pilar Turner, who stood as the lone dissenter on numerous 4-1 votes to sneak spending back into the budget. “In the city’s process, you’re cutting a person, not a position. It’s not about the budget or about the business model.”

The harsh reality is that every job is a person with a home and a family and bills to pay. But taxpayers also have bills to pay, and they would presumably like the city to live within its means.

It’s through excessive spending in the flush years, through adding one person at a time, that Vero Beach mushroomed to a staff of 451 people, according to the latest audit report. That’s how the city got itself into the untenable financial situation of being $35 million in the hole for pensions and spending nearly four times the $4 million it collects annually in property taxes on personnel.

Unfortunately, absent a big property tax increase – which no one seems willing to risk suggesting – eliminating positions is the only possible way out of the city’s financial mess.

When the sale of the electric utility takes away the cash cow that’s enabling the excess, department heads will need to employ discipline to bring the size of the city government down to a reasonable level.

Vero Beach taxpayers are facing a 17.2 percent hike in employee health care costs and a 21 percent higher tab for pensions in the coming year, contributing to the city’s inability to curb expenses and wean itself off nearly $7 million in cash from the electric utility, but the real hurdle stopping city hall from trimming the size of government is that its chief inhabitants simply don’t want to do it.

In fact, they spend as much time obfuscating – and even directly fighting attempts to reduce expenses – as they do finding ways to run the city efficiently.

The protection of territory and the preservation of bureaucratic systems and boundaries stymies any efforts by the city council to streamline operations and infuse productivity into the delivery of city services.

A perfect example of this arose at last Tuesday’s special call meeting to discuss the budget.

Among the proposed cuts was the reduction of one position from the five-person city clerk’s office. Benchmarking studies done by the city showed that, while the clerk’s office does carry a heavy load, a staffing level of five employees was not in line with other cities.

When the matter came up for discussion, the council tried to find a way for departments to cooperate, to ease the burden of the city clerk’s office in taking minutes for 135 committee meetings per year. The suggestion was made that City Manager Jim O’Connor’s secretary Joyce Vonada could help by taking minutes at a few of those meetings.

At that point, did O’Connor – by far the most capable and professional city manager Vero has had in recent memory – tell his bosses his secretary would begin covering some meetings right away?

O’Connor responded that Mrs. Vonada, a 34-year city employee who earns $30.68 per hour – that’s $60,000 per year, plus benefits – does not have “the specific skill set” required to take meeting minutes.

“I’m sure Joyce would have done anything we asked,” Turner said after the meeting.

But was O’Connor protecting his territory, letting the city council know that his staff was his domain?  Or was he trying to assist City Clerk Tammy Vock in fending off an attempt by the council to cut her budget and her staff?

Whatever the motivation, it worked. The fifth position in Vock’s office was reinstated.

When asked by Vero Beach 32963 if she’d ever, in her long tenure with the city, taken minutes of a meeting, Vonada said, “I actually started out in the city clerk’s office, before Tammy and the rest of them were there.”

Vonada said she took minutes for nearly every city committee, rattling off the names by memory.

“I was offered the city clerk position after I had only been there one year,” she said. “But at the time I was getting ready to start a family and didn’t want to do all the night meetings.”

Vonada said she entered a competitive process for the job in the city manager’s office instead.

“We had to take tests because there were five of us going for the job. Only myself and one other girl were able to take dictation,” she said, adding that she aced the dictation test and was selected for that and other skills to assist the city manager. She still takes notes of staff meetings.

When asked if she would be willing to help the city clerk’s office by taking minutes of the occasional meeting, Vonada said, “I’m sure we could have worked out something where I could have helped.”

In response to a records request for a list of any special training or skills needed to take minutes, Vock replied by email, “I don’t know what ‘skill set’ it takes to do minutes as long as they are accurate and there is a clear record as to what was said at a meeting.”

But in case anyone other than Councilwoman Turner failed to see the validity of the explanation that Vonada didn’t know how to take minutes, Finance Director Cindy Lawson also pointed out during the meeting that keeping up with O'Connor's schedule occupies so much of Vonada's time that it would be difficult for her to help the city clerk.

Last time we checked, most busy executives are fully capable of keeping track of their own schedules, many of them on amazing, new-fangled electronic devices that they're already carrying around as cell phones.

Vonada said she does, in fact, set all of O’Connor’s formal appointments, but that his entire schedule is kept electronically and “he synchs it with his cell phone.”

O’Connor, asked later to clarify his remarks to the Council, said he was trying to tell them “that Joyce has been out of the City Clerk’s office over 30 years and has not been called upon to take minutes at council meetings or council commissions for that period of time.

“Since I have assumed the role of both the City Manager and Utility Director, she has been the individual responsible to support my ability to do both roles and work with the changes needed in the organization to meet Council expectations,” he said.

Take this example and extrapolate it to nearly every spending choice in every department, and it adds up to $1.3 million back in the budget and 15 jobs saved in the past eight weeks.

Until the culture drastically changes at the City of Vero Beach and a City Council of true fiscal conservatives is seated who will make the tough choices to modernize city functions and demand efficiency instead of excuses, homeowners should bank on their property taxes going up and up – and island residents will pay the lion’s share.

City voters are the only ones who can end the big spending at city hall by turning council members out into the street every two years until they seat people willing and able to bring sanity to the city budget.

The majority of current council seems very reluctant to do the right and necessary thing.