County manager says hold off on hiring for 90 days as economy slows

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Steve Huffman
Rowan County Manager Gary Page said Friday he plans to recommend to county commissioners a 90-day moratorium on the hiring of non-essential employees.
Page addressed the matter while speaking to members of the board of directors of the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce during their annual retreat.
Page was referring to the matter of the economic downturn and how he planned for the county to respond. He said he’ll recommend placing a freeze on hiring when commissioners meet Monday.
“We’ve got to do things like that,” Page said. “This is sort of like a first step.”
He said he’ll recommend exceptions to the hiring freeze for sheriff’s deputies and emergency medical technicians, jobs that must remain filled despite tough economic times.
Page was one of four ó the others being John Pruitt of Rowan Regional Medical Center, Carolyn Adams of the Hefner VA Medical Center and Todd Shuping of Duke Energy ó local business leaders who spoke to members of the Chamber’s board of directors Friday.
Page said he’d recommend the 90-day hiring freeze, then “see where we’re at.” He said the county has an average annual employee turnover rate of about 7 percent.
Page said he’s also encouraged county employees to cut travel to save money.
“We have to be cognizant of the economy and our revenue,” he said. “We’re trying to be pro-active, ahead of the curve.”
Page said the state allows for counties to implement a quarter-cent sales tax increase to generate cash. Voters must first OK the tax increase, he said.
Page said the county may eventually consider taking such a measure to voters, though the step would be a last resort.
“It may be an alternative to raising property taxes,” he said.
But Page reiterated that such a measure probably won’t be seriously considered for a good while, and said he hopes the economy soon improves to where such action isn’t needed.
He said the economic downturn has led to less construction, meaning the county misses out on money it normally receives from recording fees and the like.
“When people are afraid, they’ll say, ‘How am I going to deal with that?’ ” Page said.
He admitted that when it comes to the economy, there are no easy answers.
Page touched on a handful of other matters Friday, one of which was plans for a new or expanded jail. “We’ve got a jail problem,” Page said. “It’s not going to go away.”
He said economic problems make the jail’s over-crowding worse.
“A bad economy leads to more crime,” Page said.
He said there has been discussion of building a high-rise jail downtown, but said parking for the facility would be a problem. Page said such a high-rise would cost between $20 million and $30 million.
He said county leaders have discussed building a jail annex in the vicinity of the county’s airport. The annex, Page said, would house less-violent criminals ó those sentenced for, or awaiting trial on, misdemeanor charges.
“I just wanted to let you know we’ve got options,” Page said.
He also addressed the matter of a new central office for the Rowan-Salisbury School System. Page said educators are typically torn between two thought processes on the matter.
Teachers sometimes say the money should be invested in the schools rather than in new offices for administrators. But Page said members of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education have told him that the new offices are essential for teacher recruitment.
He said consideration to convert the former Winn-Dixie at the intersection of Jake Alexander Boulevard and Lincolnton Road into school administrative offices remains on the table.
“It’s a viable option,” Page said.
He said he’ll ask commissioners Monday to give him the OK to hire a consultant to consider such a plan. Page said commissioners and school board members have each weighed in with opinions on converting the former grocery store to administrative offices.
“A consultant would give us a third-party view,” Page said.