Wanted: Mesa Economic Development Director. Needs to be handy luring shopping malls and other businesses to a growing metropolis of 450,000 people.
Also wanted: Head of the Mesa Arts Center. Bring art galas and theater shows to the city’s sparkling $90 million downtown center. Three months after Mesa’s leaders passed a cut-ridden budget, this is the situation around the halls of city government. Want ads for rank-andfile laborers as well as top managers are plastered all over job boards in Mesa’s personnel office.
For instance, the city needs high-ranking administrators to lead its economic development efforts, transportation department and to reform a scandal-ridden Parks and Recreation Division.
Mesa also needs workers who repair potholes and make the city’s electric
During the last several months, a number of highprofile city staff members in economic development, public relations and transportation have fled to surrounding communities such as Chandler, Avondale, Scottsdale and Fountain Hills.
Every week, it seems, a new person announces his or her departure. Last year, the city’s turnover rate was the highest in 20 years.
It’s also more than twice the national average.
Low morale in the wake of budget cutbacks could be causing departures from city government, former and current employees say. And staffing levels below industry standards are putting pressure on the city’s remaining work force.
To make matters worse, some key city positions have attracted few applicants.
Currently, Mesa has many leadership positions in transition, including five acting directors at the departmental and divisional level.
Dan Cleavenger, acting head of transportation, is a good example of employees taking on extra duties. In addition to performing his old duties as lead traffic engineer, he’s also helping out three other areas in his division.
“If it lasts for an extended period of time, there could be burnout,” Cleavenger said. “I think it could happen for some people.”
Mesa’s high turnover started with a cost-saving measure during the city’s budget crisis. A citywide severance offer launched in July 2005 spurred the departure of 104 municipal employees.
That exodus saved the city $1.8 million, but the departures didn’t stop there. All tallied, Mesa lost roughly 350 employees in fiscal year 2005-06. The turnover rate for employees not involved in public safety was 12.7 percent, according to Mesa’s human resource department.
The industry average for those employees is less than 7 percent.
Mesa Police Department had a 10 percent turnover rate. But City Manager Chris Brady, who came from San Antonio earlier this year to join the city, said there’s nothing to worry about.
“Well, (the turnover rate) is not below average,” he said. “It’s slightly above what the city has typically gone through.”
Low morale and heavy workloads have become part of the environment, say current and former employees.
Rob Price recently resigned from his 24-year career as a marketing coordinator for the city’s Community Services Department.
He spent months helping devise plans to attract corporate sponsorships to save Mesa’s cultural and community events from the budget chopping block, he said.
In the end, leaders didn’t use them and community events such as the popular Merry Main Street went unfunded.
“Those plans were still pending when I left. They could be in the ‘round file’ now, for all I know,” said Price, who left his job with Mesa to take a position at South Mountain Community College.
“I could have been there forever,” he said of his former employer. “It just didn’t fit philosophically.”
The Community Services Department bore much of the city’s budget slashing. The department saw 10 percent of its positions eliminated last year after voters rejected a city property tax measure.
That department now has nearly a 12 percent vacancy rate. Trisha Sorensen, acting community services manager, will soon have to find two new division directors in parks and recreation and at the Mesa Arts Center. The environment has had a psychological impact on employees, she said.
“They’re passionate, dedicated and they’ve been elemental in building the programs that we’ve got. It’s hard for them to see them shrink,” she said.
Divisions across the city are operating below staffing levels prescribed in the industry. Human resources and the city’s attorney’s office and other divisions have a high rate of unfilled vacancies, said Sheryl Currell, director of the city’s human resource department.
Some positions might be tough to fill.
Teri Killgore, acting economic development director, said that lately she’s seen as many as eight job postings across Arizona for government economic directors.
“In our industry, it’s really competitive for talent at the moment,” she said.
The city has struggled to fill vacancies in other areas as well. Recruitment periods have been extended for some positions.
City engineers, police officers and workers in Mesa’s Utilities Department have been scarce, Currell said.
Transportation engineer positions that command good pay have also remained unfilled for more than a year in some cases, Cleavenger said.
There are a few fundamental reasons for the city’s struggle to fill positions.
From a broad view, the nation’s projected labor pool is smaller than the increasing demand for work, Currell said.
But the problem might hit a little closer to home in some of the city’s battered departments, such as Community Services.
“Maybe they think it wouldn’t be an opportune time to apply,” Currell explained. “They might not want to step right into the budget cuts.”