Payson no longer needs a hydrogeologist to search for more water.
But it does need someone to run the water department — now that Payson Water Czar Buzz Walker’s on an independent contract and the town’s hydrogeologist has quit.
So on Thursday, the council will decide on whether it wants to turn hydrogeologist Mike Ploughe’s now vacant slot into a position for a “water division manager, grade 71.”
Hang on: This takes some explaining.
Back in June of 2010, the town council approved buyout packages for Water Department Head Buzz Walker and Acting Community Development Director Ray Erlandsen — in a creative, head-scratching effort to save the town money on benefit costs.
Walker and Erlandsen each received about six months salary as a buyout. They then retired, locking in lower retirement benefits than if they’d stayed on as regular employees. They each then came back to work as private contractors at about the same salary — but with no benefits.
The town agreed to essentially “lease” Walker from Educational Service Incorporated (ESI) for $86,000 annually — of which Walker gets $76,600. ESI gets a $3,000 management fee, from which it pays for unemployment, Medicare and workmen’s compensation benefits. Erlandsen was given essentially the same deal, except for a “lease” payment of $76,000.
The agreement came as a result of the town’s effort to limit the cost of spiraling retirement benefits packages. Because of the length of their service, the benefits packages for Erlandsen and Walker amounted to a staggering 60 percent of their salaries. The benefits packages for more recently hired workers amounts to more like 20-30 percent of salary.
But here’s the wrinkle.
As a contract worker, Walker can’t technically supervise a full-time, paid town employee.
As a result, Public Works Director LaRon Garrett essentially took over as supervisor of the water department — and hydrogeologist Ploughe became officially responsible for the day-to-day operations.
Of course, Walker continued to show up to work every day. His decades of experience in building the town’s water system ensured he continued to effectively run the department.
Several months ago, the well-regarded Ploughe, who played a key role in bringing Blue Ridge water to town, left his job abruptly for personal reasons.
All of which leads to Thursday night’s moment of decision for the Payson Council.
Town Manager Debra Galbraith has recommended that the town eliminate the hydrogeologist position.
“We do not foresee filling the hydrogeologist position in the future as the C.C. Cragin project has negated the need to search for future water resources,” concluded Galbraith in a memo to the council.
However, the town still needs someone to run the water department — since Walker remains a “leased” contract employee.
“The water division is under the public works department and while Buzz has continued to assist LaRon with the management of the water division, there is no one remaining within the water division at an upper management level,” wrote Galbraith.
Galbraith’s memo predicted zero additional cost, which means the new manager will presumably make no more than Ploughe was making before he left.
The town’s payroll has started to rise sharply after several years of holding steady.
The town used a federal grant to hire six new firefighters recently, although that grant will only pay their salaries for the next three years.
The town is also recruiting to hire five or six police officers that will fill currently empty slots. Major crimes, with the exception of domestic violence, have dropped significantly in the past several years as the number of officers on the street has declined.