Lack of money stops Modesto Public Works split

Modesto doesn't have the cash to pay for new administrative posts if it splits its Public Works Department into two entities, but it can afford to hire a new transit deputy director to ease the pressure on that division's top ranks.

That's the essence of a City Council vote Tuesday night that gave a little ground to Public Works Director Nick Pinhey, but didn't allow him to carry out a reorganization he has asked for since February.

Hiring that new deputy director could cost the city about $147,000 in salary and benefits. But the city is in a hiring freeze while department directors this month look for ways to trim their budgets.

The money for the new position would not come from Modesto's beleaguered general fund, which pays for public safety, parks and other services. Instead, the cash would come from three funds that have guaranteed revenue streams.

Pinhey's preferred plan would have required the city to hire three administrative employees at a cost of $246,273, with $50,242 coming from the general fund.

Councilwoman Janice Keating adamantly opposed the split. She and Councilman Brad Hawn voted against hiring the deputy director, but Hawn did so because he favored Pinhey's proposal to divide the department in two.

"Even if it's only $50,242, it's still more than we have," Keating said.

She said Pinhey was hired two years ago to manage the entire department and that he was carrying out his job effectively.

He oversees about 380 employees who manage Modesto's sewers, drinking water system, airport, bus program, tree trimming and road maintenance.

Pinhey asked the council to split his department into a Municipal Utility Department and a Transit Department. Utilities would have managed sewers and drinking water and transit would have taken everything else.

Departments merged in 2004

Modesto used that structure until 2004, when the departments were merged because of cost concerns.

Pinhey said Modesto would gain from the split because Public Works employees would have clearly defined roles that would enable them to respond quickly to job-creating, economic development projects.

"It's probably never a good time, given budget cycles, but it has been demonstrated that it's a fairly effective system," Pinhey said.

That reasoning won support from Modesto Chamber of Commerce Director Joy Madison.

Budget concerns carried the argument, but Pinhey called the deputy director position a "good, intermediate step."

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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