Local News

Most local governments are hiring workers

SEBRING - At Avon Park, City Manager Julian Deleon has watched the number of full-time employees plunge from a high of 103 to 50. At Highlands County, the drop wasn't as dramatic - from 373 in 2010 to 352.5 in 2013. The school district employed 1,745 workers in the 2007-08 school year. And although human resources director Vivian Waldron has requested an extra processing clerk just to keep up with applications, she doesn't expect the district will have more than 1,600 workers this year. However, the employment arc is reversing: local governments are hiring again.
"It's a trickle at this point," said Ken Small, an economist at Florida League of Cities, "but we are beginning to see more government hirings." The county is using a state grant to add four workers to the Healthy Families program, said Office of Management and Budget Senior Manager Tim Mechling. If commissioners approve in September, County Administrator June Fisher will add an animal control officer and a road and bridge equipment operator to the fiscal year 2014 budget. Bigger blips in government employment hiring have appeared at the school board: 42 classroom teachers will be added, along with a vision teacher and a social worker for the district. Seven custodians and other paraprofessionals will be eliminated, so the grand total of new positions is 34.5. Because of the housing market crash and legislative changes, local governments in Florida lost billions in property tax values. "When you take away that much revenue, you cut a lot of positions," said Small. Port St. Lucie alone laid off 28 police officers. But property values are rising again. Two years ago, Small said, "some of your nicer beach communities started to turn around. I believe Highlands County is still looking at a minus number." Correct, Property Appraiser Raymond McIntyre said earlier this month, but he also told commissioners that Highlands County could see its own increase in 2014. Port St. Lucie PD has hired back many of those officers, Small said. At the school board, Superintendent Wally Cox added a planning period, which is why the bulk of the teachers were hired. However, Waldron added, replacement staff are slowly being rehired too. "When the economy was very slow and families were in trouble, people were moving out of Highlands County," Waldron said. Enrollment dropped, so not as many teachers, administrators or support staff were needed. Last year, there was a mass exodus due to retirement. But, she has also noticed, "Families are coming back; enrollment is up." And although she's not an economist, Waldron is feeling the economic turnaround. At Sebring, City Manager Scott Noethlich isn't hiring new staff, but there is a turnaround. In October 2010, the city employed 153 full time workers. By 2011, that number was down to 147, and 133 by 2012. In June, however, paychecks were issued to 168 full and part-timers, and the number continues to climb. "We formed a hiring committee at one point," Noethlich said. "We were having department heads present arguments about why they needed to replace staff." But the city council has disbanded that committee, so the police department is able to fill a position or two. So is solid waste. The fire department is also adding positions, although the latter is due to the resolution of a labor dispute. gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828