BUCKHANNON — Following a contentious debate, Buckhannon City Council ultimately approved hiring an information and grants coordinator at its Tuesday meeting — but not without making a major amendment to the job description.
The position — which would be completely new to the city — was approved by a vote of 5-1, with councilman Robbie Skinner dissenting and councilman David Thomas abstaining due to financial concerns. The position description initially encompassed 11 duties, including writing press releases, newsletters and announcements for the city; distributing information to the press; updating the city’s website; researching and writing grants; and preparing internal newsletters for city employees, among other tasks. Other duties — such as working with the director of the Stockert Youth Center to develop holistic programs; promoting capital campaigns for SYC and Colonial Theatre projects; and being cross-trained in other clerical duties in city hall — were removed from the job description.
Mayor David McCauley estimated it would take $45,000 to fund the position, with $30,000 to $35,000 paying for an annual salary and the remainder funding the benefits package. McCauley has also stated that each of the city’s five enterprise boards — the general fund, the waste collection board, the water board, the sanitary sewer board and the consolidated public works board — would each contribute $9,000 to $10,000 to fund the position.
At the outset of the discussion, councilman C.J. Rylands said he fully supporting adding the position.
“I think it’s a great idea, and I think we need to move forward,” Rylands said. “I spend an inordinate amount of my time talking with people and informing them of the facts. We don’t do a very good job of telling our story out there, as evidenced by some of the people who come in here and advocate for things based on inaccurate information. I’m prepared to make a motion to move forward with this and hire this individual.”
Councilwoman Mary Albaugh seconded the motion. Albaugh, however, wanted to know if the city had secured the approval of all the funding boards. McCauley said he plans on convening a special meeting on the topic, which would include both city council and non-city council members of the four utility boards.
“At that meeting, we can lay this out for everybody to chat about at the same time and explain the virtues of this for each of the five boards,” McCauley said. “It would be open to the SYC, the fire department, the police department, every facet of what we do as an organization will benefit from this person’s endeavors and labor.”
But city recorder Susan Aloi questioned how much input the individual boards would actually have if city council approved the position that evening.
“If we pass the motion for this specific job description, then aren’t we just sharing that information with them?” Aloi asked. “The decision’s already been made.”
McCauley replied, “The city council as an entity cannot speak relative to this matter for any of the four utility boards. We got to get five thumbs up — this is the first thumbs up (council representing the general fund). I think it’s easier to go back to the other four boards and tell them that the city council has already supported this, and then it’s going to be easier for these boards to say, ‘Yes, we support it, too,’ as opposed to saying, ‘No, we don’t.’”
Aloi replied, “So after council approves this, they would have input into whether or not the hire is made?”
McCauley said no.
“No, this hire will be made by the Buckhannon City Council,” the mayor said. “We’re not going to put this up to a vote among our 84 employees. It’s going to be the city council.”
Thomas said he didn’t see the sanitary board, sewer board and water board benefitting from the addition of a grant writer, adding that the consolidated public works board might reap some benefits.
“I’m just a little concerned that we’re grabbing at something that sounds good on paper, but not sure we are ready to proceed,” Thomas said. “I don’t mean to kick the can down the road.”
McCauley maintained that a grant writer/public relations professional “will pay us back 1,000 percent.”
“I just came out of the Municipal League meetings and ran this past a dozen different mayors, and half of them already have a grant writer, and the other half are salivating at the fact that Buckhannon’s pursuing it,” McCauley said. “Every single one of our boards can benefit from grant writing, Dave. There’s still state and federal funds and still private foundations.”
Skinner said there’s an important distinction between a grant writer and a public relations professional.
“This would have to be an extremely special person,” Skinner said. “Frankly, I think we’re setting up whoever we hire for failure. I think it’s entirely too overwhelming for one person. I think for that amount of money ($30,000 to $35,000 plus benefits, totaling $45,000), I don’t think this job description is going to work.”
Thomas said he could support hiring a grant writer.
“I think this city is a lot different today than it was before Mr. McCauley got elected,” Thomas said. “There are some negative things on Facebook, but there’s some positive things on Facebook. I see grant writing as more important than public relations now.”
“The person who’s our PR person is probably the mayor,” Thomas added. “David, you’re woefully underpaid for what you’re doing.”
The annual salary for the mayor is $22,500 with no benefits.
McCauley replied, “This is absolutely, unequivocally not about my compensation. It is about my reality that we are barely scratching the surface with revenue opportunities that are out there if we had a dedicated person to do it, they will tenfold.”
Skinner said the city doesn’t seem to need a public relations professional.
“Everywhere you go, all everyone is talking about it how amazing Buckhannon is, so we’re obviously getting the message out that Buckhannon is the place to be,” he said.
Aloi observed that council was “a little confused with terminology.”
“I think what I’m thinking of is a communications director — someone communicating information to citizens who need to know it for different reasons,” Aloi said. “I am supportive of this position, but not with this current job description.”
Aloi said the duties listed in the first seven bullet points were acceptable, but suggested striking points 8, 9, 10 and 11 — which mostly pertained to coordinating programs in conjunction with Stockert Youth Center and the Colonial Theatre and being cross-trained in city hall office duties.
Rylands amended his motion to approve the position description with the recommended changes. Albaugh seconded the amended motion.
Albaugh, Aloi, McCauley, Rylands and Cuppari voted in favor of approving the position as amended, while Skinner dissented and Thomas abstained.
Next, council will have to approve an advertisement for the position to be posted in local newspapers.