Camas will soon fill more than 20 vacancies

City held off on hiring for 28 open positions during yearlong COVID-19 pandemic, saved $1.44 million

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Camas City Hall is pictured Tuesday morning, April 14, 2020. (Contributed photo by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian files)

Clark County’s recent move into the less-restrictive Phase 2 of the Washington Roadmap to Recovery COVID-19 reopening plan means city leaders in Camas can begin to fill more than 20 staff vacancies put on pause during the yearlong pandemic.

“Over the last year, we’ve been able to save $1.44 million (by) not filling 28 open positions,” City Administrator Jamas Fox told city councilors at the Council’s Feb. 16 regular meeting. “Now that we are in Phase 2, we’re looking at (filling) critical positions to alleviate strain in certain departments and meet the service delivery we all aspire to and that Council and the community would like to see.”

Camas Mayor Barry McDonnell tied the city’s biennial 2021-22 budget to the state’s phased reopening plan in late 2020.

The idea, said Camas Finance Director Cathy Huber Nickerson, was that the phased budget would allow the city to more easily accommodate revenue losses during the more restrictive reopening phases — and also move forward with a more robust budget when COVID-19 rates improved and the county moved to less-restrictive phases.

When it was introduced in 2020, the city’s budget allowed for essential-only services during the most restrictive Phase 1, with essential services plus COVID-related costs in Phase 2, a limited budget with some offices reopening and the possibility of rehiring seasonal workers and budgeted staff in Phase 3; and a full budget with onsite work and open offices under the least-restrictive Phase 4.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced a new reopening plan, the Roadmap to Recovery, in early January 2021. This plan follows a regional approach and ties Clark County’s reopening to the Southwest Region, which also includes Skamania, Cowlitz, Klickitat and Wahkiakum counties

The local region moved into Phase 2 on Feb. 11. The area will stay in the less-restrictive phase, which includes limited indoor services at restaurants, gyms and movie theaters, through at least March 1. To remain in Phase 2, the area must be meeting three out of four metrics set by the state’s Department of Public Health, including having decreasing COVID-19 transmission and test-positivity rates and fewer people being hospitalized for the coronavirus.

The move to Phase 2 means the city can begin to hire for essential positions that have been put on hold during Phase 1, Huber Nickerson said last week. All of the positions are included in the city’s 2021-22 budget.

The city plans to hire for 20 unfilled positions, including four new firefighter positions approved in the 2021-22 budget by the end of the third quarter, which runs from July 1 to Sept. 30. The city will begin searching for the final eight staffing vacancies during the third quarter, with hiring for those positions taking place before the end of 2021, Fox said.

Some city councilmembers worried about what would happen if the region’s COVID-19 numbers went up again and the county regressed to Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan.

“Our experience so far is that these phases tend to oscillate,” Councilmember Ellen Burton pointed out at the Feb. 16 meeting. “We move forward and we move back. We know hiring takes time … so what happens if, in the next eight weeks, we shift back to Phase 1?”

Fox said the city would still move forward in the hiring process.

“Each department has been having huge workloads,” Fox said. “To maintain the service levels the community expects to receive … we made the conscious decision that it’s time to alleviate the (staffing shortages) in those departments.”

Burton asked if the city could realistically bring that many people onto its staff in such a short time period, but Fox said the city’s new human resources software will help expedite the process.

Included in the first round of hiring are two police officers; five firefighter-paramedics; one firefighter; three library aides; one library associate; two administrative support assistants; one grounds worker; one maintenance worker; one utility maintenance worker; one senior administrative support assistant and one accounting assistant. The remaining vacancies, to be filled by the end of the year, include: a permit technician for the building department and three maintenance workers for the public works department; as well as a mechanic and an operations supervisor for the public works department.