MLK Blvd. Landscaping Can't Happen Without New Covington Arborist
"You're saying we're not beautifying Martin Luther King Boulevard," asked City Commissioner Michelle Williams of City Manager Larry Klein.
The question came as the city commission was to consider an agreement with the Kentucky Department of Highways on Tuesday to install new landscaping in the median of the newly widened artery that runs east to west through Covington. The road is owned by the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
The city has already hired a consultant to design new landscaping and an irrigation system for the median with plans to start work in the spring or summer.
That work is now on hold because of intense disagreements over the hiring of a municipal specialist, proposed at a previous city commission meeting as an arborist. Without that supervisory position in the Department of Public Improvements, Klein said the work could not be done.
"We want to make sure we have enough people to maintain it," Klein said Tuesday, noting that the public works department is already a hundred work orders behind. "If we don't have people to do the work than we don't want to install it and have it look bad six months or a year down the road at the front door of the city."
Moments before the commission agreed to delay a vote on the landscaping project, they also agreed to table the issue of hiring the municipal specialist, a position that was first presented to the previous commission last September. At that time the issue died when no other commissioner offered a second to then-Commissioner Sherry Carran's motion to fill the position.
Now Carran is the mayor but support for the job is still small, though the commission did approve the adoption of a job description for the position, 4-1.
"If we have money to create new positions we should add to police and fire. I vote no," said Commissioner Mildred Rains to applause from an unusually loud and unruly crowd in the chambers at City Hall.
The commission also adopted a job description for the position of municipal groundsworker with plans to hire three to work under the municipal specialist. One immediate task that would be assigned to the new crew of four would be the MLK Blvd. landscaping project. "It's not gonna do any good if we don't have enough police and fire to get to the house that's burning or getting broken into," Rains said after being the lone vote in opposition to this job description, too.
Klein explained that the department of public improvements has long been understaffed and now that the city is beginning to realize some of its savings from re-negotiated labor contracts, lower health care costs, elimination of the city's dispatch center, and a reorganization of City Hall, the funds are there for the new hires.
The groundsworker jobs would be created as union positions, and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in Covington agreed to the descriptions and salaries for them, Klein said. "These (positions) are in the budget. We are just filling them at this time," said Klein.
Though the job descriptions were adopted there were no items on the agenda related to hiring any groundsworkers Tuesday. In the case of the municipal specialist, however, Crystal Courtney saw her name on the agenda for a second time. She was previously proposed to become the city's arborist in September.
Now with a new title, her status with the city remains up in the air.
Commissioners Williams and Steve Frank want the job to be posted and open to the public for applications. "This is yet another job that did not go out to the public for anyone to apply for," Williams said. "It's an issue."
"This person is not a new person to us," said Commissioner Chuck Eilerman, noting that Courtney has worked as a seasonal employee with public improvements.
"We had the benefit where we have hired folks as full-time who had been working seasonably," Klein said. "We have the benefit of seeing their work ethic. It's a benefit to the city to see how they look on paper (and on the job)."
"Larry, I realize you're a master debater but this time you don't know what you're talking about," Rains said. "Why did this person start already?"
A typo on the commission agenda gave the impression that Courtney had already started her would-be new job this week. She would have started officially Wednesday.
"I thought we weren't voting on this," Commissioner Frank said aloud, adding to the confusion.
"I think it's unfortunate that (Courtney) is being put in this position," Commissioner Eilerman said.
"Who put her in this position?," Rains shot back.
Ultimately the commission decided to postpone a decision on hiring Courtney until an application process is completed and other people are given a shot at the job.
Other issues surrounding the position include the proposed salary for the municipal specialist. Commissioner Williams cited the job description from September, when the position was known as an arborist, and stated that the description is the exact same only the salary increased from $35,000 to $42,500. "Can you explain that?," she asked.
The city manager explained that the agreement with AFSCME placed the groundsworkers salaries at $40,500 and that the supervisor's salary would naturally be higher. Additionally he noted that the original salary from September was budgeted to range from $35,000 to right around to where it landed at $42,500.
"I'm sure AFSCME would like the highest wage possible," said Commissioner Frank. "I think this was done 'bass ackwards'." Frank was critical of the decision to bring on more staff in what he sees as a premature move just as finances in the city are being corrected. "A rose by any other name is just as sweet. This is an arborist position. I want truth in advertising. Obviously a lot of trees need care in the city. It just seems to defy what we were trying to do."
But Frank was aware that the name changed from arborist to municipal specialist, a title used for similar positions elsewhere. "We have to be honest here," said Commissioner Eilerman, "this has been discussed at length. It's a little disingenuous to say we didn't know."
"You changed the name to get three votes and you still don't have them," Commissioner Williams said.
"When I said it was OK to hire four back, I just wish people had just been straight," Frank said.
"It's my impression that people have been straight," Eilerman responded.
Mayor Carran called the job an important position and said that Courtney's skills in relation to it "are amazing".
Public Improvements Director Tom Logan, meanwhile, still oversees a department that is understaffed and poised to lose more employees soon. Two more are retiring in a couple months, he said. "We're struggling with personnel," Logan said. Courntey's job responsibilities would have stretched beyond attention to urban forestry to include snow removal and other tasks.
"It's a variety of duties," Klein said, "but primary responsibilities would be dealing with the city's trees, parks, and gateways."
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
Photo: Covington City Commission meeting Tuesday/RCN