Westbrook ponders human resources restructuring

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WESTBROOK – As the school system ends its contract with the city to handle human resource duties for the schools, the city is rethinking the structure of the human resources department.

On Monday, the finance committee approved a plan to restructure the department from four individuals to a two-person department that will be overseen by an assistant city administrator/human resources director. City Administrator Jerre Bryant said the new structure in the human resources department results in an $18,740 reduction in costs.

Finding the right individual for the job, however, won’t be easy, Bryant said.

“Will it be challenging to find someone to come to this organization with that skill set? Yes. We will have to do some aggressive recruitment,” Bryant said April 23 before the finance committee unanimously supported the plan as part of their final budget deliberations on the fiscal year 2019 budget. 

Bryant was told at the end of March that the school department was going to end its $148,000 human resources contract with the city at the end of June. Superintendent Peter Lancia said the decision stemmed from the fact the school department’s needs were not being met through the existing arrangement. The school department makes up approximately 65 percent of the city employees. Without that revenue and with fewer employees to provide service for, Bryant said he could not justify having the human resource department operate as is.

“If (the municipal budget) is losing all that money and workload, we have to downsize the department,” Bryant told the American Journal.

Bryant’s original proposal presented earlier this month to the finance committee had the department being restructured from a human resource director, human resource generalist, payroll specialist and human resources assistant/recruiter to two individuals: a human resources assistant/recruiter and a benefits and compliance administrator, with the payroll function being moved from human resources to the finance department, per the recommendation of the city’s auditor, where there will be better oversight.

Under that model, Bryant would have taken on additional human resources responsibilities and a $20,000 fund would have been set up for outsourcing service that couldn’t “be supplied with this leaner staffing level.” 

“It will be an experimental year to see if we can make this adjustment,” Bryant said at the finance committee review of the human resources budget April 12. “We feel we need to try it, otherwise it is very, very difficult to justify the economics of a larger department.”

Finance committee members disagreed, urging Bryant to go back and rethink the proposal. Councilor Lynda Adams understood the rationale, but had concerns with the plan, worrying that it would set the department back too much and wondered who would handle employee complaints and grievances.

“They come to me now and will continue to,” Bryant responded.

Adams also was concerned a leaner staff may also impact the city’s ability to properly evaluate employees, something done by department heads, but overseen by human resources.

“I don’t want to regret this. I don’t want this to come back and haunt us because we don’t have a person in a human resources function that is needed,” Adams said.

At the April 12 finance committee review, Councilor Anna Turcotte said she “saw a huge red flag” in not having a human resources director.  Councilor Victor Chau said the human resources department is not the place to cut.

“I am the guy who likes the cut things. I do. I love saving money, This is one (area), I don’t think we should save money on. We should spend as much as we need to,” he said.

Vice President John O’Hara worried about having Bryant take on additional work. He said in this day and age employees are being increasingly asked to take on more responsibility as a way to meet service demands while saving money.

“As much as we try to run lean and mean in this community, we can’t keep doing that. At the same time, we can’t keep raising our taxes and not be the affordable community we used to be,” he said.

Adams wondered at that April 12 review if the city would be better served hiring another assistant city administrator and rolling some of the human resources functions into that position since Bryant said when the city did have an assistant city administrator, much of that individual’s work was human resources related.

Committee members fully supported Bryant’s revised proposal for the restructured department to be overseen by the assistant city administrator, who would devote half of his or her time to city affairs and half to human resource duties.

Bryant said he is more comfortable with the revised proposal than the one he presented earlier this month.

“It right sizes the department and I think it’s what we need to do,”  he said.

The proposal will be rolled into the city’s budget, which is set for a first reading Monday, April 30 and adoption a week later on Monday, May 7.

Michael Kelley can be reached at 781-3661 x 125 or mkelley@keepmecurrent.com or on Twitter @mkelleynews.

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