CITY HALL — When city officials in January began taking a hard look at the harsh economic realities facing local government, a decision was made to freeze 18 vacant positions they deemed would have the least impact on the general public.

In the past five months, that number has grown to about 50 positions that are purposefully being left unfilled as City Hall battles a budget that is being hit by reductions in local tax revenue and cuts from the state.

But hiring for some of those positions could pick up after the new fiscal year begins on July 1.

“It would be on a case-by-case basis,” City Manager Lamont Ewell said. “We would look at these very strategically, making sure they’re absolutely essential to carrying out the work of the city.”

There are typically more than 100 vacancies in City Hall every year, including 151 during the 2006-07 fiscal year, 143 in 2007-08, and 144 as of June 2009. The 50 frozen positions represent about 2 percent of the entire organization. Some of the frozen positions were suggested by department heads in their 3 percent and 5 percent budget reduction proposals to the city manager.

While impacts are expected, Ewell said that the cuts are being made as far from the community as possible.

“We’re going to continue to monitor all of these things over the next quarter beginning July 1 to see where we are with the national economy and where the state ends up with its budget and whether our revenues pick up locally,” he said.

The positions are roughly spread out over various departments, some seeing none, others, like Planning and Community Development, seeing less than half a dozen.

The vacancies in Planning and Community Development include an environmental planner, inspector in its Building and Safety Division, a senior plan check engineer and transportation planning associate. There is also a senior planner position but it’s expected to be filled with an in-house candidate, instead freezing an associate planner position that will open as a result, Ellen Gelbard, the assistant director said. Contract employees might be used to fill some of the gaps.

The openings in the department mean that the planners may be stretched out over various projects, requiring some to do two jobs at once, Gelbard said.

“It’s definitely going to hamper our ability to do our work,” she said.

The Housing and Economic Development Department currently has a frozen staff assistant II position, which is the receptionist for the Housing Authority. The department has pulled in employees to share front desk duty.

“It means that we got everyone helping to fill in to cover that position and that is time that they’re not spending on their primary duties,” Agle said.

Lee Swain is expecting the three frozen positions in Public Works to have minimal operational impacts, saying that the vacancies are for jobs that will have the least obvious effect on the community.

The positions are in architecture services and cemetery maintenance. He estimates the savings at more than $100,000.

“We recognize in this economy we’re needing to tighten our belt just like everyone else,” he said.

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