Why Are Town Offices Closed For Lunch In The Middle Of The Afternoon?

A couple of weeks ago I received complaints from several citizens who had tried to visit our municipal office in the middle of the afternoon to pay water bills or conduct other business. All reported finding a sign on the door stating that the office was closed for lunch.

Why would our administrative offices be completely shut down at two or three o’clock in the afternoon? That’s the question I asked our Town Clerk, Bobbie Hatley, in an email on 9 April 2019. Bobbie was in school that week, so i didn’t receive a response for a couple of days. On April 11, Ms. Hatley wrote, “The reason for the late closing is so that during lunch hours we are open.”

That seems reasonable, but it betrays a bigger problem within the Town of Ramseur administrative office: understaffing. I’ve heard discussions in meetings about the Ramseur administrative office getting “dinged” by auditors or inspectors of some sort for not having at least three people in the office.

I’m not sure what that particular rule is or where to find it, but it probably relates to security and oversight. One employee alone in the office might be more vulnerable to criminal acts such as robbery, or might also fall prey to temptation when handling cash. I am not by any means alleging that such things are or ever have taken place in our town offices. I am simply pointing out reasons why it would be important to always have two employees in the office at the same time. If you only have two employees, one will have to be in the office alone sometimes or the office will need to shutdown

Apparently the state requires, or at least advises, local government units to have a minimum of three employees staffing municipal offices so that simple things like scheduled lunch breaks, vacations, or unplanned absences do not end up closing the office completely or leaving employees in compromised or insecure work environments. So how do we fix this problem?

The obvious answer is to hire another employee, but then we run into to argument many have made in the past that we cannot afford another employee. I’d need to see some numbers to believe that, given the glowing 2017-18 budget audit report the Board of Commissioners received in March. The audit report mentioned an unassigned fund balance of over $828,000, fifty-five percent of total general fund expenditures for that fiscal year.

Work is underway, or soon will be, to craft and approve a budget ordinance for fiscal year 2019-20, and there will be competing interests between departments for limited funding. Some current elected officials may even try to foolishly push through a tax cut, or a cut in water/sewer rates, in order to swat less informed voters and win an upcoming election.

It is the opinion of this writer that cutting any of our revenue streams at this time would be short-sighted and counterproductive at best. Four years ago it was necessary to raise taxes and other rates, and as unpopular as those decisions were, they were right. If we are now reaching a point where we have unrestricted fund balances of hundreds of thousands of dollars, the last thing we need to do is cut rates.

We need to invest that money in resources that will improve our community and provide our citizens with more and better services such as a municipal office that stays open all day every day, or a full time public works director, or upgrades to all kinds of infrastructure, or improvements to parks or other public facilities. The list of things we should be doing if we had the money is almost endless.

One proposal I have heard suggests that we could save money by eliminating the full time water-billing clerk’s position and replacing that full time employee with two part time employees. That may sound good at first, but I don’t think it’s the a sustainable long term solution.

People take government jobs knowing that the pay scale is lower than what they could earn in comparable private sector occupations. The trade off is a great benefit package that includes a solid retirement plan. Those plans do cost money, but without good benefit packages we should not expect to attract and retain the competent dedicated employees we need.

I would suggest that we look into hiring or contracting with an experienced professional who could act as a part-time town administrator. We should also be seeking a qualified water-billing clerk since the current occupant of that position, Mr. Cheek, is a town commissioner up for re-election this year.

I covered the reasons why Mr. Cheek needs to pick a position and resign from the other in a previous article. The state may provide a legal exception allowing this conflict of interest, but it should have never been more than a temporary stopgap enacted while a better, more permanent solution was sought. Besides, a precedent against allowing elected officials be town employees was set in 2011, and we all know how Mr. Cheek feels about precedents.

We need more people staffing our municipal office so ii can remain open during all traditional business hours. We have money in our budget, if we don’t cut tax or other rates, to invest in more people to provide better and more reliable services for our citizens. There may be better ways to increase staffing, but completely closing the office at any time during a typical business day is simply not acceptable and the problem needs should be addressed during the upcoming budget process.

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