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City worker shortage slows pothole repairs

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City crews are hustling to maintain streets and repair damage from recent storms, but nearly one in three jobs at the city department that patches potholes remains empty after years of tight budgets that may be cut further.

"They work hard and they're dedicated, but we're tasking them very hard and we're pushing them," city maintenance director Larry Leopardi warned.

More than 220 of the 778 jobs at the Department of Facility Maintenance are vacant, and the proposed city budget calls for trimming $160,000 from its Division of Road Maintenance, Leopardi told City Council members yesterday.

"We're at 29 percent vacancy and we've been that way for a number of years," he said. "It's tough. It's hard to run an organization with the resources that are available."

Council members repeatedly questioned whether road repairs have fallen behind because of the staff shortages. Leopardi said that's hard to quantify, but that roads would last longer if the city took better care of them.

"Maintenance is never done," he said. "Maintenance has to be funded every single year and it has to be done adequately every single year."

More than $2 million that was authorized for road maintenance went unspent last year because hiring limits were imposed, he said.

"We did not hire enough personnel," he said. "We were restricting what we were doing."

Leopardi said he understands that all city departments are under pressure to save money, but that spending cuts can cost more in the long run if roads or equipment deteriorate heavily.

"Typically, because maintenance is looked at as something that can be deferred, we're kind of like stepchildren here," he said. "... That is probably not cost effective. If you can correct something before the damage becomes greater, it's more cost effective."

Council budget chairwoman Ann Kobayashi agreed that straining the city's workforce to save money was shortsighted.

"The unfairness is that these good workers have to carry the load because of the vacancies," she said. "I've always questioned these high vacancy rates. It may look good on the surface

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Too bad that the budget has been cut for such essential jobs.

However it's better to have things go slower here, and let some funding occur for programs that wouldn't have existed if funding for pothole repairing is increased.

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