After counting pennies and slashing expenditures to the bone in the past year, the City of Lawton will be starting its new fiscal year with at least 20 new positions.

Administrators outlined those new personnel Thursday as the City Council began its annual review of the document that will guide expenditures and predict revenues for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The traditional process means city administrators work from January to April to craft preliminary budgets for departments, then present the proposals to the council for evaluation and approval.

City Manager Michael Cleghorn said while the 2021-2022 budget doesn’t include cost of living raises for employees, it will fund step increases, merit raises based on qualifications and length of service. Employees also can expect to see more in their paychecks because of lower health insurance premiums, possible because the City of Lawton transitioned from a self-funded system to one under Blue Cross Blue Shield. And, 70 employee positions were reclassified to better reflect their jobs, moving them to higher pay grades.

The biggest change will be more employees in city departments, along with 20 new positions — as long as the city can recruit replacements. Cleghorn said while those 20 new positions add a little more than $1 million in expenditures, “we believe they are worth it.”

It’s a decided change from the existing year’s budget, which began with city administrators cutting positions that had been funded the previous fiscal year as they tightened belts in anticipation of significant revenue drops.

“We did not fill 45 positions,” Cleghorn said, of a trend administrators began to reverse mid-year when it became apparent the economic downturn from COVID-19 wasn’t going to be as severe as predicted.

The overall effect in personnel services for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is a net increase of $169,408, with total employee costs projected at $62,086,845.

Four of the posts being added are administrative assistants, with the two top level positions recommended to support the two deputy city managers. Bart Hadley and Richard Rogalski said they now rely on the sole administrative assistant who coordinates things for everyone in the city manager’s complex, to include the mayor and council. They said the amount of work associated with their positions needs more clerical support than can be provided by one person.

“She is swamped,” Hadley said, explaining time spent on support services means he and Rogalski have less time for essential management tasks.

Rogalski noted the multiple tasks associated with his job, including oversight of economic development activities such as the FISTA, adding “there really is an administrative load that goes with that.”

Hadley said two other administrative assistant positions are being recommended for departments that have long been without, including Parks and Recreation. That department has lost three of its administrative assistants in recent years, and with the council’s emphasis on quality of life, the department “at a bare minimum, needs one back.”

Some new positions also reflect the importance of the Public Works and Public Utilities departments, where work ranges from water treatment and testing, to paving streets and repairing broken mains, to handling the city’s solid waste.

New posts include four equipment operators, personnel who operate equipment ranging from bulldozers and backhoes to sanitation trucks. Public Utilities Director Rusty Whisenhunt said the city already is having problems recruiting employees for those critical positions, which also include laborers.

Cleghorn said some personnel are being added to handle the demands of 100,000 square feet of new space in the Lawton Public Safety Center. One is a building supervisor; two others are 30-hour custodians to help keep the new complex presentable. (Nine additional jailers needed for the new jail were put in the budget last year).

Other proposals:

• Utility services meter technician, a position in the division responsible for billing residents for utility usage, producing one of the highest revenue sources for city operations. Cleghorn said that new position will be responsible for monitoring meters and water usage, adding “we believe that position will pay for itself.”

• Technician for the Geographic Information System (GIS) division that supports the Information Technology Department. Both touch every aspect of city government, Cleghorn said of the digital system being modernized.

• Building code inspector and assistant fire marshal: Rogalski said what had been proposed as another planning technician was changed to a building code inspector because of the expected increase in commercial construction. There is only one building code inspector now, he said, adding officials have long known they need to upgrade this area to provide quicker service to those needing approval for building plans. Hadley said that also is an argument for adding another assistant fire marshal: some of the plan approval bottleneck is because the fire marshal’s office is understaffed.

• Theatrical technician coordinator: the recommendation is putting a salary to coordination done for years by a volunteer at McMahon Auditorium. Cleghorn said the auditorium is a community showcase and staffing should reflect that.

Personnel proposals also include reclassification of 70 positions, meaning pay grades will better reflect their work. Cleghorn said that will help with employee recruitment and retention, adding that some reclassification work already had been planned before it was suspended during the pandemic.

“We want to make us more competitive,” he said, noting, for example, it is difficult to recruit people to work as water meter technicians, despite the importance of those positions.

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