Baker public works and utilities stretched thin, director says

The city’s department of Public Works and Utilities is operating with a “skeleton crew” and any further loss of staff through retirements or attrition will put the department in an even more difficult position, Director Julie McCulloch told city council members during a work session on Wednesday.

Public works has 10 workers, including one part-time employee and two contract workers. Eighteen people work in utilities, three of whom are contract workers. The contract workers in both areas are retired city employees. The city does not pay benefits to contract workers.

“We have a lot of people past retirement age and if they decide to go, we won’t have a water department,” McCulloch said.

She told the council she can’t afford to hire new qualified workers on her budget.

“I have had prospective people who want to work here, but they won’t take the low salary I can offer,” McCulloch said. “It’s impossible for me to hire anyone qualified and certified.”

The water certification class is difficult and most people who pass have additional training or degrees in chemistry or biology.

“They have class for four days and a test on the fifth,” Mayor Harold Rideau said.

The city is considering training high school students to give them the basic skills they need to pass the certification, he said.

“When we were elected, we said we were going to look into the salaries of the lower paid workers (in the city). Where’s the work session on that?” councilman Pete Heine said.

“I don’t know where the money would come from,” McCulloch responded.

Rideau said during the council’s work session Sept. 3 that the city was in danger of running out of surplus general fund money to pay the salaries of police, fire and other city workers.

A scheduled discussion of police and firefighter pay was tabled due to the absence of city attorney Ken Fabre, who was supposed to prepare a report about the city’s options, the mayor said.

Council President Joyce Burges remarked that the issue had been “beat to death” in the Sept. 3 work session.

The council still has not decided how to address a $324,299 deficit in the half cent sales tax fund used to pay police and firefighters’ salaries.

The Council scheduled another work session at noon Oct. 9 to discuss information technology services for the city and possibly raising utility rates to help make up some of the shortfall in the general fund budget.