Staffing issues blamed for added Port Townsend costs

Officials: Vacancy rates lead to more consultants

PORT TOWNSEND — A historically high staff vacancy rate at the City of Port Townsend is impacting the city’s ability to complete projects and leading to an increased reliance on consultants, adding additional costs.

The Port Townsend City Council updated its 2023 budget Monday evening, with many of the expenses being projects originally budgeted for 2022 but unable to be completed due to staffing issues, according to Connie Anderson, director of Finance and Technology Services.

“The majority of the items that are listed there are related to capital projects that are still in the works and we need to carry forward those budgets from ’22 into ’23,” Anderson told the council.

“This actually is a reflection of our staffing situation; not able to continue to get that work done.”

Governments often update their annual budgets throughout the year to reflect additional expenses and changes not known at the time of the budget’s drafting, typically in the fall.

Additional expenses added to the city’s 2023 budget Monday included payments to cover initiatives such as the potential changes to the Port Townsend Golf Course and Mountain View Commons and other expenses that came in higher than expected.

“We’ve all been experiencing increased costs due to supply chain issues, labor shortages and inflation as well unforeseen emergencies,” Anderson said.

But the majority of the items listed on the supplemental budget were items carried forward from the 2022 budget, a reflection of the city’s productivity lost to what Anderson called a “historically high” vacancy rate.

According to the city’s website, there are currently nine job openings, including a deputy director of public works and two engineering positions.

In a later interview, City Manager John Mauro estimated the city’s vacancy rate to be about 15 percent, which he said was significant.

“We’ve been doing more with fewer staff per population and at some point service suffers,” Mauro said.

Housing a problem

The city is limited in the compensation it can offer and the lack of housing in the county is a significant problem. Mauro said it has been a regular occurrence that the city has hired someone and that person has had to pull out of the job due to housing issues.

“Other cities are paying more competitive wages in a place where housing is far less of a cost,” Mauro said.

The high vacancy rates has led the city to rely more on consultants rather than full-time staff for work, another expense reflected in the supplemental budget.

Consultants are useful to the city, but they come at increased cost, not just in terms of money but in time as well. When consultants are brought in to do work that might otherwise be done by a full-time employee, it requires management by a city staff member.

According to meeting documents, professional services contracted to consultants includes utility tax analysis and review; on call permit review and associated engineering services; engineering roundabout analysis and accounting services contracts.

The city recently updated its zoning code to allow more housing types in the city with the goal of getting additional units. Included in the changes were provisions that allow employers to provide housing to staff.

“Part of that is somewhat self-serving,” Mauro said. “We suffer because of the constrained housing supply.”

The COVID-19 pandemic caused massive disruptions to both the housing and labor markets, Mauro said, and many cities are struggling to hire engineers.

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Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at peter.segall@peninsuladailynews.com.

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