Southampton Town Board Ditches ‘Hiring Freeze’ Legislation

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With the adoption last week of its $88.6 million operating budget for 2015, the Southampton Town Board also brought to an end a six-year “hiring freeze” at Town Hall.

During that time, which started with the onset of the national financial crisis in 2008, the town’s total staffing levels were cut by more than 15 percent at times, primarily through attrition and retirement incentives. Today, the town employs 482 employees; in 2008, that number stood at 554 workers.

But the hiring freeze was never really a strict halt of such practices. Throughout that time, the Town Board has filled important positions by setting aside the necessary funds in its annual budgets and through the mid-year replacements of departing employees.

“I used to joke with [former] Councilman [Chris] Nuzzi that it’s a hiring ‘slushy,’ not a hiring freeze,” Councilwoman Bridget Fleming said this week. “It’s never meant what it said.”

The hiring freeze legislation, which was adopted each year by the Town Board as part of the annual budget, included specific exemptions for the immediate hiring for emergency services and public safety personnel whenever those vacancies opened up, and it did not tie the board’s hands in adding or filling salaried positions during the budget process.

Unlike hiring freezes in some financially strapped municipalities, Southampton Town’s version did not even block the Town Board from filling vacant positions mid-year. Primarily what it did was memorialize a pledge by the board to fill vacated positions only if such moves were absolutely necessary, which it often found they were.

Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst noted last Thursday, November 20, that over the past two years, the town had 28 vacated positions that did not fall within the exemptions allowed in the hiring freeze. The board, in turn, filled 27 of those spots.

However soft its actual chilling effect on hiring, the policy has played an important role in reversing the financial woes of the town, according to supporters of the initiative.

“The point is it keeps our feet to the fire,” Councilwoman Christine Scalera said. “This has been touted as one of the reasons we’re in the financial positions we’re in.”

National credit rating agencies have pointed to the hiring freeze as one of the many policies and practices adopted by the town in recent years as reason for its high credit rating, which was elevated to Aaa—the highest possible level—last year.

Whether the legal wording of the hiring freeze is what trimmed down staffing levels, or the simple realization that the town needed to slash spending, policy proponents say it is important to force government to clear certain hurdles whenever possible.

“The hiring freeze made the elected officials have to specifically exempt and give reasons for hiring any personnel outside of what was provided for in the adopted budget,” former Councilman Chris Nuzzi, who sponsored the original legislation in 2008, said this week.

“It was never meant to be an unbreakable lock-out on hiring,” he continued. “It basically forced the board to think a little more strategically about reorganizing from within and getting the job done with less people.”

At last Thursday’s budget adoption, Ms. Throne-Holst said that is exactly what the town did over the last several years, with clear results in its current financial soundness. But, she added, the wording of the legislation alone was not the catalyst for the rebooting of government management that led to the recovery from the depths of its one-time deficit.

Ms. Throne-Holst, who had voted in favor of the hiring freeze legislation in previous years, when she was in the political minority, said that shedding the legal wording of the policy would not mean the spirit of its intentions would suddenly be expunged.

“I don’t need a hiring freeze to be fiscally responsible, and I have seven budgets behind me now to prove that,” she said. “I have supported it over the years because it is an easy lift to say … we’re going to be very, very judicious in how we hire. We’ve been more than cautious, to the extent that some of us think we’ve gone overboard.”

Indeed, Ms. Fleming has pushed back against the hiring freeze in name and in practice, criticizing her colleagues’ reticence to fill vacated positions in town offices in recent years. She has argued that the town was setting aside important needs in favor of saving a few dollars even though annual surpluses were soaring into the millions.

She has lobbied for expansions of the town’s environmental and engineering staff, moves she finally saw come to fruition last week.

“We’ve been through four years of austerity budgeting, deficit budgeting and we’ve eliminated essential positions,” Ms. Fleming said during the board’s final budget meeting last Thursday. “Our stormwater management division basically was unstaffed. We have 350 miles of coastline, we are a watershed, we talk about clean water and yet we had eliminated the engineer position whose job it was to focus on what is going off our roads and into the water.”

The adopted budget adds seven new positions to the town’s payrolls, including a stormwater management engineer, but none of those would have been blocked by the renewal of the hiring freeze since they were part of the budget proposal.

Nonetheless, Ms. Scalera and Councilman Stan Glinka, both Republicans, each said they wished to see the hiring freeze legislation continue to be part of the budget.

“I think it keeps us structured and focused,” said Mr. Glinka, one of the board’s two first-year councilmen. “I get the impression we could go on a spending spree here.”

The supervisor countered that she did not see the need to continue with the hiring freeze, later adding that she would introduce a similar measure—one that the board could similarly adopt and add to its official guidelines—that would detail the sort of prudence that the board has exhibited in recent years.

“Our triple-A rating is thanks to us … implementing some very conservative and sage budgeting and treasury management processes here,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. “And it’s certainly my intention to stick to those practices.”

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