The city of Searcy is having trouble staffing its departments based on how much potential employees are wanting to be paid, according to the city’s department heads.

Sanitation Department Director Terry Rutherford was among seven department heads who spoke before the Searcy City Council on Thursday night about their employment needs. Rutherford said that he was “down two” workers from 42 employed by his department.

Council member David Morris asked Rutherford how many commercial driver’s license drivers he needed to get all the city’s equipment up and running.

“I’ll need more than 42,” Rutherford told him. “I’ve got seven boom trucks – we’ve been running four but I need three CDL drivers to run the others.” According to Rutherford, if the trucks weigh more than 26,000 pounds, the driver has to have a CDL.

Morris asked what the city’s rate of pay was for these type of drivers, and Rutherford said the starting salary is $13.50. Morris then asked if Rutherford was having trouble keeping CDL drivers. Rutherford said, “Yes sir, yes sir. We are going to staffing agencies searching for people for general labor, but the staffing agency is not set up to hire CDL drivers because of liability and such.

“We put the numbers out there. There are places in Searcy who hire people to drive trucks and other things and they are paying $17 to $20 an hour. You can’t compete [unless] they look at our benefit package. ...”

Council member Tonia Hale asked Rutherford what the procedure was when residents called to say they have limbs to be picked up.

“We dispatch somebody as soon as we can,” he said. “We have four trucks running, three of those trucks pick up brush. As you know we have four wards; in the perfect world, we’d like to have a trash truck and put it with a boom truck in each ward and then have a junk truck.” He said “junk” meant white goods, swing sets and old stuff that residents collect and put out to the curb.

“We need five trucks running to do it and we only have three, so therefore we are a little bit behind,” he said. “We don’t tell them they are on the list, that was the statement that used to be made. We say, ‘Yes, we will take care of it,’ and we get to it collectively as soon as we can.”

Rutherford mentioned that there are 7,000 households in Searcy “and it’s kind of hard when you use three trucks.”

Council member Don Raney asked Rutherford if the limit of three was based solely on CDL drivers, and he told him yes. “We don’t have enough CDL drivers to run those other two trucks, We have seven operational, but I’m only running four.”

Raney said he thought that the sanitation department had a lot more workers than 42. Rutherford said when he came to work for the city 19 years ago, there was 60 workers, but “that number has just been reduced and reduced.”

“Our city as you all know is growing and growing and growing,” Rutherford said. “We are doing the best that we can with that.”

Raney said, “So the rate of pay for CDL is a big problem,” and Rutherford agreed.

Council member Rodger Cargile asked if all seven trucks were boom trucks, and Rutherford said they were. Cargile asked how many were operating that day and Ruther said four were operating, “one picking up junk, three picking up brush.”

Rutherford said if he could put a boom truck in each ward and have a floater, the floater could work an area that has a heavier workload that day.

He said his department had 14 CDL drivers currently employed there.

Cargile asked if there was any thought of giving these drivers some overtime hours. Rutherford said it has been talked about but his department really doesn’t have an overtime budget, although through the years there has been an overtime budget.

He said years ago there was a $70,000 overtime budget so there could be runs on the weekend or during long summer days, he could have employees come in at 6 a.m. and keep working through the day since he really doesn’t like the idea of running boom trucks or trucks like them at dark. He said not all of the drivers would work overtime but he knew of some who would “love to do it.”

Council member Chris Howell asked Rutherford what his recommendation was to fix the problem. Rutherford said if the department were to be given “no holds barred,” it needs to hire the two employees.

“The money is going to have to get better, too,” he said. “We have to make them want to come to work for us because some of the guys on the desired rate of pay that is on the application, $18 to $20 an hour.”

Rutherford said he has had potential employees tell him the city’s benefits are good, but the money is not. He said some said they were planning on relocating to Searcy but couldn’t because of the money.

Street Department

City Engineer Mark Lane spoke next about the Street Department. He said the department has a superintendent and five employees at this point, but one is out on medical leave. In the past, Lane said the street department has added as many as 10 employees, but right now is operating with four employees and the superintendent.

“Someone is mowing on the tractor, you have got to have someone behind him in a truck, in front of the truck,” Lane said. “That is three out of four employees who are really out there doing the work.”

Lane said in his department, there are employees working in the mid-$13 an hour level up to the mid-$18 level. Predominantly though, workers in the department were at the mid-$13 level.

“Local construction companies are paying ... what I was told two or three weeks ago by the owner of one of them, he starts people at $18 an hour,” he said. “It’s hard to compete with that.”

Lane said he did agree with Rutherford that the city offers a good benefit package, but “the younger guys, they don’t care what good the benefits package is, they want to know what they are going to get every two weeks.”

Lane said he thinks his department needs two more “operator-type” employees who could run a bulldozer, a back hoe, track hoe or whatever. He said the department was getting ready to fill one of those spots but could also use some general labor workers who “can actually get down and do the heavy lifting.”

Hale asked Lane if he had any idea how many projects the city was behind on, and he said there were numerous projects. “I have projects on my board in there that have been over there for more than two years.” Hale send a resident in her ward has been waiting since February on a need.

Howell asked Lane how the priorities were determined. Lane gave as example a hole in the middle of Poplar Street about a month ago. He said he went to check it out and it was about 4 feet deep with a pipe down in the hole. “That’s something we stop everything we are doing and we go over and fix it.”

Whether it’s a priority “kind of depends on the dangers it poses,” he said. “If there is a risk to human life, we are going to stop other things that we are doing [and get to it]. Mowing a lot of times falls to the wayside because it’s unsightly but it’s not harming anything really. A lot of drainage problems need to be addressed fairly quickly because we never know when it’s going to rain. We’ve got to take care of it because of flooding. We just have to look at each individual thing and make a decision.”

Howell asked Lane what his recommendation was to fix things, and he said, “I think we need to make a concerted effort to hire some more people, but I think to to do that to take the job, we’re going to have to pay a little bit bitter. We are going to have to bump people’s salaries up if we want to get the good quality people.”

He said he probably”hire people all day long at $13 an hour who are going to sit around and you have to stay on them eight hours a day to be able to do anything or they will be off doing whatever.”

Concerning equipment, Lane said his department is doing fairly well but it does have some that are aging. A bulldozer being around from when he started working for the city 21 years ago and road graders older than that were mentioned.

Morris recalled that the city bought a road grader used and Lane said when it broke down last winter, the city was unable to get a part for it for a good amount of time.

Lane said the equipment is used pretty hard. He said he could come with a list pretty quickly of things the department could utilize.

Parks and Rec

Parks and Recreation Director Mike Parsons said his department doesn’t have a big turnover rate when it comes to staffing the Carmichael Community Center and the parks department, but it does with the Searcy Swim Center because “normally, that’s seasonal.”

Recently, Parsons said he had an employee retire and someone left for better pay, so he actually has three spots open in grounds and maintenance and one of those has been open for over a year.

“We interviewed a young man today just out of high school, no work experience, but that’s the only job application we got,” he said. “We have been hiring whoever we can just to fill the spot and get by for the mowers and stuff, and a lot of times that doesn’t work out.”

Raney asked Parsons if it was mainly because of the rate of pay that he couldn’t find workers, and he said, “Yes sir, minimum wage except for the gentleman who retired because he was here almost 10 years. Almost everyone in the maintenance crew makes under $13 [per hour] except two.”

Cargile said he thinks this can be compared to what “we see in the paper” where an introductory job at Hobby Lobby pays $15 per hour.

Parsons said he goes through the Searcy Regional Chamber of Commerce to help find workers and also he uses Facebook pages to get the word out about jobs open. He said his department also has done newspaper advertising, “but when they see weed eating out in 110 degree heat for eight hours a day at $11 per hour, it’s hard to get them in there.”

Howell asked if the jobs he was talking about were seasonal, asking what the employee who does weed eating doe in the winter time. Parsons said, “Christmas lights, we’re starting those Oct. 1st. There’s always something between the Rialto, Smyrna Church, maintaining the grounds, bike trails; we’ve got plenty to do year round.”

Morris mentioned Parks and Recreation employees also are needed to put the synthetic ice rink together at Spring Park. Parsons said things get vandalized and broken, so there is always something for the workers to do.

Searcy Mayor Kyle Osborne thanked Parsons and said, “I think we are going to hear the same thing from each department.”

The reports by the department heads were made two months before Searcy voters will decide in a special election to be held Nov. 9 whether to make the city’s temporary 1-cent sales and use tax permanent. The eight-year tax passed in 2014 expires next June. Searcy voters already rejected making it permanent in a February special election.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series. The second will cover the remaining departments that addressed the council, including police and fire.

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