June 28, 2006 - Brent Sinclair's normal seat during Oro Valley Town Council meetings is along Department Head Row, a stretch of counter next to the council dais where the top leaders of the town's bureaucracy perch.
When Sinclair, the town's community development director, speaks to council members, it's usually from his seat and only after they've spoken to him.
June 21 was different.
For the first time in his 24 years of public service including seven years with Oro Valley, Sinclair rose from his seat during a public hearing and walked out to the speakers podium to address his council as a citizen.
He beseeched the council to approve hefty pay raises for town staff to help alleviate a near crisis in town staffing.
"In order for this town to function we need to retain existing employees and recruit new employees," Sinclair said. "This last year has been hell for us."
Sinclair's unusual act exemplifies the high emotions and raw feelings of the town's public employees the past year as the town has struggled to fill open positions and retain existing employees because town pay lags well behind other governments in Southern Arizona. Few town departments have suffered as severely as Sinclair's planning and building services departments, with each plagued by high turnover, unfilled positions and gobs of overtime.
Sinclair wasn't alone. More than 40 town employees crowded the council chamber, and a parade of employees, many from the planning department, addressed the council during the hearing, each pleading for a townwide increase in pay.
Not only were their pleas answered, but in a strange twist, they may have received more than they asked for. A divided council passed the pay increases, 4-3, as part of a $105.8 million tentative budget for fiscal year 2006-2007. The vote set the cap on the maximum amount of money the town can spend next fiscal year but the council is still free to move money around in the budget as long those maneuvers don't exceed the spending cap.
Council members Barry Gillaspie, Paula Abbott and KC Carter voted against the tentative budget cap. Their opposition, though, had more to do with a ploy by some council members to add 19 new employees to the budget at the 11th hour and tie their hiring to the passage of a utility tax increase in September.
The council had dickered over pay raises, new staff and new taxes for several weeks at several meetings and study sessions. When the budget season began in the spring, town department heads initially sought approval for 30 more town employees, adding to the roughly 360 existing employees. An organization of town employees also sought pay raises and salary "market adjustments" for some town staff. The council packet of agenda information handed out to the media before the meeting indicated the council had come to an agreement on a budget cap of $104.6 million that included the pay increases but added only three new employees.
After the budget public hearing, Councilwoman Helen Dankwerth instead proposed adding the 19 new employees but only if the council passes a 4 percent utility tax increase in September.
Dankwerth said giving existing employees more pay wasn't enough. The town also needed to reduced staff workload by adding more employees.
Gillaspie, though, said he couldn't ethically approve increasing the town's budget cap for more employees without the funding in place to pay for them. He said it puts the council in the difficult position of having to vote on a tax in a couple of months knowing these positions hang in the balance.
Dankwerth's proposal will cost the town about $1.2 million, which is why she sought an increase in the budget cap by the same amount. The council considered imposing a utility tax in October that town finance officials estimated would raise about $1.9 million a year but rejected it in a 5-2 vote. Only Loomis and Dankwerth voted in favor of the tax. (Councilman Al Kunisch was not on the council at the time.)
Vice Mayor Terry Parish, who is a Pima County Sheriff's Office deputy, said after the meeting that he voted against the tax last year because budget officials failed to identify how it would be used, only that the town needed to collect it. He said he will likely vote for the tax increase this time because the 13 new police department employees it will pay for will go a long way toward helping the police department maintain its current level of service.
Parks and Recreation and development services departments will divvy up most of the remaining six new positions.
Dankwerth said the council won't consider the utility tax increase until September because the public notification requirements for public hearings necessary for passing tax increases would have delayed the budget's approval. The council will vote in July to consider the tax. In August it will publish notice of the September public hearings.
Water, electricity and gas bills will increase 4 percent if the tax is approved as proposed last year.
In other action:
€ The council voted 6-1, with Abbott opposed, to pay the State Land Department $30,000 as the town's portion of a planning study for a huge swath of desert north of town and west of Oracle Road straddling the Pima and Pinal county line.
About 40 people from the communities of Catalina, SaddleBrooke and Oracle attended the meeting and several addressed the council on the issue. Most sought the town's cooperation in allowing them a voice in the planning process and expressed concern about Oro Valley's possible annexation of the entire area. Pima and Pinal counties are expected to join the town and the state in the planning process.
The state owns the land and the planning study is the first step in a lengthy process to prepare the land for auction and development. Oro Valley has considered annexing lands to its north, but council members emphasized at the meeting that annexation discussions are years in the future.
€ Councilman KC Carter sought and was granted an agenda item for the council's only meeting in July to discuss hiring a new town manager from the ranks of the current employees. Town officials and some council members have said the town will conduct a national search for a new town manager if it doesn't choose an internal candidate. A council member after the meeting said the council seems divided about whether to promote a town employee to the position or do the search and let the town employee compete with other applicants. Carter's agenda request was to interview a town employee in executive session and consider hiring the employee at that July 19 meeting. The town employee was not identified.
Town Manager Chuck Sweet announced his resignation last month, but his last day won't be until September.