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Paonia considering Friday town hall closure, new hires

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In what administration is calling an effort to improve customer service and allow the town clerk and finance officer to get their work done, the Paonia board of trustees will consider at the May 22 meeting the hiring of a part-time clerk and closing of Town Hall on Fridays.

The two changes were suggested at the May 8 board meeting by the Finance and Personnel committee. Both items, neither of which was on the agenda, were being considered for a vote, but were tabled after trustee Barry Pennell suggested that in the name of transparency, the public be allowed to consider the changes. "I do think there needs to be a period where we inform the public," said Pennell.

Committee members Karen Budinger and Chelsea Bookout suggested the new hire could answer phones and greet the public. That person could also cross-train, allowing the clerk and finance officer to get their work done and have their jobs covered when they take time off.

Funding for the position would come from the one-percent in-town sales tax increase recently approved by voters and scheduled to go into effect July 1.

"This position, and closing on Fridays, would be extraordinarily helpful to the staff and I think it would ultimately improve customer service," said administrator Ken Knight. While they shouldn't, town clerk Corinne Ferguson and finance officer Cindy Jones perform work "that never gets claimed" in order to keep up with demand, said Knight. That demand increases at specific times including election and audit seasons.

Every other Friday is already spent preparing for board meetings. Closing the office would allow for staff to perform those and other duties without interruption, said Knight.

Mayor Charles Stewart said that while he understands this is "a very real problem," he has concerns about closing the office to the public. "The public's business doesn't stop on Fridays," he said. "There's a very reasonable expectation from the public that on a business day ... that the town's not going to be closed to the public."

Pennell agreed, adding that hiring another staff member and closing the office a day a week may not sit well with the public.

Trustee Bear asked, with the board recently having to search for $500 to cover purchase of a lawnmower that went over budget, how the town can afford an additional staff member?

Knight said that a part-time staff member is in the budget and has been working since last year.

Ferguson said that while it has helped to have a part-time staff member to greet the public and answer phones, "it doesn't solve the problem."

Bookout suggested that board members spend three or four hours or so in the office to understand the depth of the problem. "We shouldn't make a decision until we have a clear understanding of what it is that they're talking about," said Bookout.

The board will also consider using new sales tax revenues to shore up pay scales for employees whose salary levels fall below accepted ranges for their positions.

They will also consider approval of a fourth full-time police officer. The police department currently employs three full-time officers and one part-time officer. The move "would greatly benefit this department," said Knight. When officers take vacations or attend court, "We are dramatically understaffed."

Police Chief Neil Ferguson said that when he first joined the department 10 years ago, it had five full-time employees and was increased to six for about two years. In 2015 the department was reduced to three officers, and a part-time position was added in 2016.

Funding would come from existing General Fund revenues and would not use any of the new sales tax dollars, said Knight. The 2018 budget allows for three full-time officers and one part-time officer.

The Delta County School District is also discussing the placement of a School Resource Officer (SRO) in each of its schools beginning next fall. If that is approved, said Knight, one officer would potentially be assigned as an SRO during the nine-month school year and would function as a town officer during the busy summer months. The district is considering budgeting $10,000 per school, to be used at the discretion of each police department.

With so many staffing and budgetary issues at stake, town treasurer Ross King suggested that the town address all of them a public work session.

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