Council directs Colusa City Manager to explore hiring freeze

The Colusa Police Department will be most affected by the temporary hiring freeze that the city council proposed last week, city officials said.

Even though they were optimistic the numbers would true up by the mid-year budget review, the Colusa City Council made a statement last week.

Last week, the Colusa City Council directed city staff to begin the process of instituting a temporary citywide hiring freeze, citing the $434,000 deficit in this year’s budget.

According to Toni Benson, city finance director, the city currently has only two positions that it is currently actively trying to fill. By initiating a hiring freeze, the city would no longer attempt to fill those positions and they would be removed from the adjusted mid-year budget, slashing the projected deficit by over 20 percent..

“Those two positions would equate to a $95,000 savings to the general fund, if I take them out,” Benson told the council.

The request for a hiring freeze came from Mayor Greg Ponciano. The council – minus Josh Hill, who was absent – agreed by consensus to direct City Manager Jesse Cain to start the ball rolling an the hiring freeze, which could extend through the mid-year budget review in March.

“Our proposed budget came in with a $434,000 deficit, and we all understand that… is basically a worst-case scenario… Once we do the mid-year (budget) adjustments, that’s where you get a little bit truer sense of where you really are. I’m advocating a hiring freeze until that time, so we can look at the mid-year budget and kind of get a better idea of exactly where we are. I know that we do have a couple of openings – some vacancies that within the city – and I just think that given this current condition, it’s the prudent thing to do at this point, as painful as it might be.”

It will be more painful for the Colusa Police Department than others. The department was the midst of the hiring process for a ninth officer – a position the small department has only been able to fill intermittently over the tenures of the past three chiefs.

“I have one that’s in the midst of the hiring process, but he can’t be hired until his background is finished,” Chief Josh Fitch said. “So, I’ve got some time and money in him already.”

Fitch told the council he had only spent about $500 so far on that candidate’s hiring process.

In addition to the candidate in backgrounds, the city is also sponsoring a cadet through the police academy, who they have already agreed to hire on – pending his successful completion of the academy – sometime around April. That cadet, plus the officer who was already in the background process, would have brought the department to 10 officers – a staffing luxury the department has not enjoyed since the late 1970’s, Chief Josh Fitch said. Fitch added he didn’t think the candidate would still be available by the time the mid-year budget review rolls around.

Mayor Ponciano told Fitch that the police department would “be the one that’s most impacted” by the temporary hiring freeze, and that he supported the idea of finally filling that tenth position, but added: “I just don’t know that doing it during a near $500,000 deficit is the correct time to do it.”

Councilman Dave Markss agreed, saying that while the council understands the challenges the police department faces with finding and retaining qualified officers, the city’s budget deficit was “daunting.”

“Josh, I completely understand where you’re at, and I hope this is very, very temporary. But I just cannot, in good conscience – being responsible for the finances of the city – keep going down a path leading to a cliff,” Ponciano said.

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Brian Pearson is the Managing Editor & Reporter for the Williams Pioneer Review. Brian joined the Williams Pioneer Review in June 2016 and is committed to bringing hyperlocal news to its readers. A few of his projects include reporting on local government and the newly feature sports page. To contact Brian about this article, or for future articles, please email him at brian@colusacountynews.net