Collier County building department eliminates 20 more jobs

Donna Dowdell, looks over at customers in the Building Inspection section of the Community Development & Environmental Services office Tuesday. 'We had layoffs today, please be nice to me, ' Dowdell said to a customer she sees regularly. Dowdell's section lost two people Tuesday leaving her as the only person to deal with customers. Administrator Joe Schmitt announced Tuesday morning that he is vacating and freezing an additional 20 positions within his Community Development and Environmental Services Division. Schmitt's agency has been the hardest hit by the economic slowdown in the past two years, as his operating budget depends largely on permit fees. Lexey Swall-Bobay/Staff

Donna Dowdell, looks over at customers in the Building Inspection section of the Community Development & Environmental Services office Tuesday. "We had layoffs today, please be nice to me, " Dowdell said to a customer she sees regularly. Dowdell's section lost two people Tuesday leaving her as the only person to deal with customers. Administrator Joe Schmitt announced Tuesday morning that he is vacating and freezing an additional 20 positions within his Community Development and Environmental Services Division. Schmitt's agency has been the hardest hit by the economic slowdown in the past two years, as his operating budget depends largely on permit fees. Lexey Swall-Bobay/Staff

Operations Manager Jamie French walks through an area of empty cubicles Tuesday afternoon. Administrator Joe Schmitt announced Tuesday morning that he is vacating and freezing an additional 20 positions within his Community Development and Environmental Services Division. Schmitt's agency has been the hardest hit by the economic slowdown in the past two years, as his operating budget depends largely on permit fees. Lexey Swall-Bobay/Staff

Operations Manager Jamie French walks through an area of empty cubicles Tuesday afternoon. Administrator Joe Schmitt announced Tuesday morning that he is vacating and freezing an additional 20 positions within his Community Development and Environmental Services Division. Schmitt's agency has been the hardest hit by the economic slowdown in the past two years, as his operating budget depends largely on permit fees. Lexey Swall-Bobay/Staff

— More layoffs are in store for Collier County government workers.

Earlier today, Joe Schmitt announced that he is vacating and freezing an additional 20 positions within his Community Development and Environmental Services Division.

Schmitt’s agency has been the hardest hit by the economic slowdown in the past two years, as his operating budget depends largely on permit fees.

The cutting process has been extremely difficult and emotional, Schmitt said this afternoon. Some of the people laid off have been working at the county for 15 years, he said.

“I have a lot of empty desks,” Schmitt said.

This is the third force reduction announced by the division over the past 12 months; 15 employees were released under last year’s voluntary separation program; 16 were part of the first series of cuts announced in February 2008; and an additional nine positions were eliminated in April. Those reductions, combined with the freezing of vacant positions through retirements and normal attrition, will total 109 vacant positions in a frozen/unfilled status of the division’s authorized 299 positions.

In 2007 his budget was $61 million. For the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, he started out with a budget of about $32 million. The cuts reduce that by some $1.4 million to $1.5 million, he said.

In truth, if he’d performed a mid-year adjustment, calibrating the budget for the money he has, it would be about $25 million or $26 million, explaining that the budget process begins in spring, while the budget is passed in September.

“About 80 percent of my budget are personnel costs,” Schmitt said.

Because of financial woes, there isn’t much the county can do for employees who have been released: two weeks of severance pay, Schmitt said.

“There are people who have been here as many as 15 years,” he said. He’s not only losing souls but invaluable institutional knowledge, Schmitt said.

“They’re my competent and technical staff. It’s no longer (reduction in) muscle. We’re cutting off limbs. We’re eliminating very critical positions,” Schmitt said.

While the public may not be familiar with many of the employees, one name they might recognize is principal planner Mike DeRuntz, Schmitt said.

DeRuntz could not immediately be reached for comment.

When contacted Tuesday about the cuts, Commissioner Jim Coletta hadn’t yet heard the latest announcement. He said there must be a way of retaining staffers, or Collier government -- and the Naples area economy -- will fall into a downward spiral.

“Whenever we lay off people, it affects other (aspects) of the economy,” he said. That includes other industries.

To keep the situation from spiraling out of control, “we have to tow the line and say ‘We’re not going to cut the work force anymore,’” Coletta said. “We can’t cut institutional knowledge. I’m also concerned about emergency services and social services.”

Tuesday, Commission Chairwoman Donna Fiala first heard of the cuts on Friday from employee Russ Muller, the engineering and environmental department, a man with whom she’s worked closely.

“He almost started to cry. Where is he going to go after 21 years of service to the county?” Fiala asked. “He was so good with the people. He was so dedicated and caring. That’s the people we are losing now, and there’s nothing we can do about it. It just breaks my heart.”

Intricately involved with community members, Muller was involved with sidewalks and pathways, and chairman of the Metropolitan Planning Organization technical advisory committee, Fiala said.

They worked together on some beautiful community programs, she said.

“The other day I saw him at the MPO meeting and I started to cry, and I don’t cry,” Fiala said.

Muller could not immediately be reached for comment.

But Fiala stands firmly with Coletta on job retention.

“I don’t want to see any more job cuts. I want to find a way to support these people (although) I don’t know what can be done,” she said.

Tuesday afternoon, Fiala planned to meet with her “kitchen” cabinet members for her East Naples/Marco Island district. Today she plans to meet with County Manager Jim Mudd.

“There’s got to be some way to stop this bleeding,” Fiala said.

One issue she wants to discuss is Collier’s version of the national stimulus program.

“We should be stimulating the economy. One of the ways to do that is not to eliminate landscape and median maintenance, because that laying people off,” Fiala said. “We’re all in a quandary right now. What are the options? We’re desperately searching for options.”

Schmitt said the latest round of cuts is in direct response to insufficient fee revenue.

“We fully understand that staffing needs to be cut as our staffing is directly related to workload. Unfortunately, this latest round of cuts will have a direct impact on our ability to serve our customers and the community because this cut is now targeting building and construction inspectors, zoning and site plan reviewers, permitting technicians and highly trained technical staff. As with the earlier cuts, we explored all options available before arriving at this difficult decision,” he said.

Builders will not be able to obtain the speedy service provided in the past, Schmitt said, when asked how the cuts would affect community development.

“I cannot guarantee next day inspections. Builders are going to feel this,” Schmitt said.

This was a tough round of cuts for Schmitt to make, he said.

“I knew this was coming. We looked to see if anybody (applied for) voluntary separation. I only had one (application from) my staff,” Schmitt said. “I had to take it from there and just looked at where I could absorb the most pain.”

Ironically, the layoffs come at a time when county organizations are uniting to create job retention opportunities.

Growing Associates in Naples (GAIN) begins a new seminar March 13. GAIN is part of Leadership Collier, and future young leaders -- those who range in age from 25 to 40 -- include several county government workers: Joseph Frazier, Collier County Emergency Management Department; James French, Collier County Government; and, Kerry Runyon, Collier County Parks and Recreation Department.

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