City Council workshop: Dover’s growth magnifies staffing shortages

DOVER — It’s never too early to look towards the future and start making a list of what is going right and other things that are of concern.

That is exactly what Dover City Manager Donna Mitchell and City Planner Dave Hugg did at a City Council workshop on Friday at council chambers inside of City Hall.

At the workshop, members of city council were informed of “staffing challenges” that will soon become a challenge for several departments in an ever-growing city.

They also learned about infrastructure needs that need to come to the forefront before the city planning staff crafts its’ fiscal year 2020 budget.

“While the majority of the discussion (Friday) will involve our infrastructure effort, our assets and our challenges very clearly, we will also be reviewing for upcoming budget requests for resource needs in several other departments due to increased demands on current staff that can hurt our growth and the regulations (that we have faced) over the last 20 years,” Mrs. Mitchell said in providing an overview of the workshop Friday morning.

“These additional (staffing) requests are five in the police department, one in human resources, one in the city manager’s office, and two part-time in recreation. These are requests that have been made for the FY20 budget, which is very, very preliminary, so some of these requests may not stay in the budget.”

Mr. Hugg said that the city of Dover does not appear to come off to potential employees as an employer of choice. That’s due to its’ high turnover rate, deteriorating facilities, compensation and other issues, he said..

“I think what we’re seeing is a changing landscape, a healthy economy, and a growing community, but to reiterate what you’ve already heard, we are not staffed at or have the capacity to deal with that level of growth on a continuing basis,” he said.

Donna Mitchell

Mrs. Mitchell said the turnover is a huge issue because it can sometimes take up to six months to hire somebody and then another six months to train them. It has become a constant issue, which leads to short staffing over time, and it is an issue the city needs to address.

“Noteworthy is our 2018 revenues exceeded the budget by $1.1 million in light of inspection permits ($299,000), Court of Chancery fees ($147,000) and transfer taxes ($813,000) and our utilities continue to track to the budget estimates,” said Mrs. Mitchell. “Our challenges are turnover in vacant positions.

“In 2017, we had turnover of 54 positions with 16 retirements, three deaths, 27 resignations and eight terminations. In 2018, we turned over 34 positions with nine retirements, 18 resignations and seven terminations. We have 33 employees that can retire on non-FOP staff, including nine of them can also retire in the near-future. There are 14 police officers that can retire and 19 in the near-future.”

Renovations needed

Along with addressing staffing issues, Mrs. Mitchell said there are several city buildings that need renovations and repairs, many to heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

Some upgrades are currently taking place at Weyandt Hall, the building on 5 East Reed Street that houses the city’s administrative services. They are expected to be completed by the spring when the city’s Public Works department is expected to move there from City Hall.

“This workshop is a chance to acknowledge the economic development that has occurred in the past couple of years and its impact on our revenue and to provide an understanding of the current state of our assets and the resources allotted to maintain those assets,” Mrs. Mitchell said. “As you’re all aware, Dover provides an extensive array of services stemming from governmental services including public safety, planning and zoning, community services, parks, libraries, streets, sanitation, emergency response, administrative and central services, stormwater management, wastewater facilities, our water utility and our electric utility.”

She said that many of the buildings that house those services need renovations, including: City Hall (estimated $1,022,000 in renovations); Electric Administration building ($415,000); Fire Station II, west side ($345,000); Water Treatment Plant ($51,000); Weyandt Hall ($1,994,000); and William Street facility ($507,000).

They also discussed the need to address employee safety concerns at City Hall and Weyandt Hall.

There was some talk about potentially constructing a new City Hall at the current location of the Dover Post Office on the east side of the Dover Public Library, but Council President Tim Slavin cautioned that is an issue that still remains far away in terms of becoming a reality.

“I want to be clear that as we walk out of here that we’re not talking about building a new City Hall,” President Slavin said. “I think that’s part of a larger discussion about where capital improvements across the city can take place and where they’re most effective. We have some ideas about how to improve the downtown, but we also heard earlier about infrastructure needs that are critical.

“I think if we were to place things kind of in relative order (a new City Hall is) not a first priority at this moment, but that doesn’t mean we don’t think about it and we don’t begin the process of thinking about it.”

Growth prompts need for changes

Mr. Hugg said that Dover’s growth curve is steep enough that some staffing additions have got to be considered.

“There is no question that Dover is changing and growing,” he said. “We’ve grown in terms of land area from annexations over the last 20 years and we’ve certainly grown in population. Depending on how you look at the numbers, we could have grown by as much as three percent last year if all the apartments and single-family houses that were approved actually were occupied using relatively low numbers. You could easily be looking at 1,300 or so new people coming to Dover in the last year.

“That’s about a three-percent growth rate and that’s way ahead of what’s happening in (Kent) County and perhaps the state. We’re certainly growing in the number of businesses that we see up and down the highway and downtown and in the residential development that is occurring.”

That growth is the biggest reason why Mrs. Mitchell and Mr. Hugg wanted to get an early start on presenting potential upcoming issues to city council members before the next budget season arrives in May. Councilmen Tanner Polce and Scott Cole were unable to attend the workshop due to prior obligations.

Councilmen William “Bill” Hare and Fred Neil said they were appreciative of the presentations by Mrs. Mitchell and Mr. Hugg.

“I think these kinds of meetings are very important,” Councilman Hare said. “You can get the issues that everyone has concerns about out and make everyone aware of what is going on, because we don’t all see the day-to-day activities that the staff is doing, and they’re doing a good job and this helps to keep us updated.”

Mr. Hare said the biggest thing he learned from the workshop was “the need for the upcoming budget with the positions and staffing that needs to be done, plus the safety issue (in city buildings) we are addressing. I think those are important issues to me.”

Councilman Neil thinks a new City Hall in the future would be a boon for workplace morale as well as hiring new employees and retaining older ones for Dover. For now, he said it was just nice to see were the city currently stands.

“I think it’s the realization of what still has to be done and moving towards that,” said Councilman Neil. “You see what the problems are and now how to we correct that? This is a blueprint to correct that and I think that works.”

That is what Mrs. Mitchell was hoping for.

“I think (the workshop was) very important because to me, communication is very big,” she said. “They don’t know what the issues are unless you communicate it and providing them pictures so they can see the visuals I think is very helpful, so to me it’s very important. It helps them to see our challenges and it helps them see what we’ve got going on that’s really positive in the city.”

Slavin stepping down as president

Mr. Slavin announced at the end of Friday’s City Council Workshop that he will not be seeking to extend his position as city council president in the spring. He did not provide a reason for his decision.

“I just want everyone to know, just for personal reasons, I won’t be seeking council presidency again in the spring,” Mr. Slavin said. “Obviously I have two years left to my term as a councilman and I fully plan to be fully engaged in that, but from a different role on council other than council president.

“It has been my honor to serve all of you. I appreciate the opportunity and the confidence you have in me.”

Mr. Slavin was sworn in as the at-large councilman for the city on May 13, 2013. He had previously served on city council from 2004-’10. He served as the chair for the Council Committee of the Whole and is a member of the City/County Committee (Liaison to Kent County); Downtown Dover Partnership Board of Directors; and was a member of the Police Chief Selection Committee

He currently serves as the Director of the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs for the State of Delaware, a position he has held since 2004. He has previously served as the State Archivist for two states, Delaware (2000-’04) and Rhode Island (1989-’95) and has co-authored two books on Delaware history, as well as numerous articles in newspapers, magazines, and journals.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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