As the population of Yelm has boomed, city staff has been working to maintain the same quality of service, Mayor Ron Harding said. But the city has been unable to add more staffing.
In addition to not being able to add additional staff, open positions such as the city administrator and the sewer treatment plant manager have not been filled. Other department heads, like Public Works Director Ryan Johnstone, are also leaving the city for other job opportunities.
“We apparently don’t have any sort of replacement for Ryan slated, and we have no Sewer Manager,” Councilor Molly Carmody said in an email. “Ryan has been doing that job on top of his own job for a long time now. What’s going to happen this summer when water usage skyrockets and the reclamation plant, aging and dangerously understaffed, fails? Who’s going to deal with that?”
Harding said the city has been able to keep up with the demand for services.
“We’ve primarily maintained all our services over the last 10 years,” Harding said. “What we try to do is maintain the same level of services.”
This summer the city will perform an analysis of staffing levels to determine what the ideal staff level is for a city the size of Yelm, Harding said.
“As part of that analysis we will be doing a long-term financial forecast for the city,” he said.
As part of the budget process the city will reevaluate its goals for services and improvements, Harding said. The budget process will begin in July and last throughout the rest of the year.
Over the next few years the city will not add any new services when new staff is hired, Harding said. The new staff will work to maintain the same level of service.
“It’s really more about relieving internal pressure,” Harding said.
In order to add new services the city would need a much larger tax base to support those services, Harding said. Even if the city has the funds to support a new service one year, it does not mean that the funds will be there the next year. A sustained stream of revenue is needed to add new city services even if there is a need for a new service or increased staff.
“It is important to resist the urge to meet those needs,” Harding said.
Carmody is concerned about the future of the city if staff levels do not increase and department head positions are not filled.
“What’s it going to take for Yelm to wake up and see that our city is falling apart?” Carmody asked. “We now have no permanent city administrator, we’re losing our human resources Director in October, we just lost public works, and we’re critically short staffed in all departments.”
Currently the city is operating at staffing levels that are lower than what is needed for a city the size of Yelm. The Yelm Police Department is the most visible department in need of additional staff.
“We do the best we can with what we have to meet the service needs,” Yelm Police Chief Todd Stancil said. “With additional staffing we could improve the service to the community.”
YPD currently has 12 commissioned officers, 10 of whom are on patrol, Stancil said. The goal is to have two officers on duty at all times but sometimes it is not possible.
The average call volume is what determines the times of the day when multiple officers are on duty, Stancil said. During weekdays the average peak time is from 10 a.m. to midnight. On the weekend the peak times are 2 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.
“We constantly evaluate our schedule to meet the needs,” Stancil said.
Officer Devon Taylor works the graveyard shift and at times is the only officer on duty in Yelm. Often Taylor will provide back-up to Thurston County Sheriff deputies in the area because he is the closest law enforcement. Dispatch will send another deputy from another part of the county but they won’t have to rush to the call making it safer for the deputy and for any other people on the road. While in route the deputy will cover any calls from Yelm until Taylor is done backing up the first deputy.
“We got a system our here, it seems to work,” he said.
The city of Yelm has a mutual aid agreement with Thurston County Sheriff’s Office and several other law enforcement agencies in the region.
“It’s pretty uncommon for cities not to have a mutual aid agreement,” Stancil said.
Idealy Stancil needs three more officers to meet the service needs. Each one of those officers costs about $100,000 annually, he said. To help with financing a new officer Stancil is applying for a COPS grant from the federal government. The grant will pay 75 percent of the costs for a new patrol officer for three years.
“We are looking at everything,” Stancil said.
In 2009, the YPD had to cut two officers due to budget issues, Stancil said. Of those two officers one was the crime prevention officer whose job it was to work with the community to prevent crime and to educate the public about ways to stop crime from happening. Stancil would like that position back.
“That would be great to have that position back one day because of the benefit of it,” he said. “We are in a recovery mode, like the whole economy.”
Even with the low staffing, Stancil is proud of his department and is confident in its ability to keep the community safe.
“I feel that we live in a safe community,” Stancil said. “We work hard every day to make sure this is a great place to live and work.”