With Bethlehem facing a budget deficit of nearly $4 million next year, City Council Tuesday night voted to impose a freeze on hiring non-emergency city employees for the rest of this year.

Mayor Robert Donchez said the hiring freeze is not necessary.

“We’re not on a hiring spree,” said the mayor after the vote. “It’s not like we’re out there hiring people.

Donchez said every open position in his administration has been critically evaluated to determine if it needs to be filled.

“We recognize we have to reduce our work force,” said the mayor. “In the future, the work force will be smaller than it is today.”

While acknowledging that every little bit helps, Donchez predicted the hiring freeze is not going to make a big impact on the impending budget crisis.

No one was predicting how much the freeze may save the city this year, but both the administration and the council member who first proposed the freeze agree it will not come close to averting a $4 million deficit.

“It’s a start,” said council member Michael Recchiuti, who sponsored the hiring freeze resolution. “If we can save a couple hundred thousand dollars, that’s something. It should be able to save a significant sum.”

The vote to approve the freeze was 6-1.

Council member Eric Evans, who voted no, made the strongest case against it.

Evans said it is not council’s role to be involved in an overall hiring freeze. He suggested what council was doing “is almost like a power grab.”

Evans said determining whether positions should be filled is the job of professionals in the administration. By establishing a hiring freeze, he said council is trying to do the job of city administrators. He said that shows a lack of trust by council.

Council member Bryan Callahan strongly disagreed with Evans, saying:
“It is our number one priority, our number one role. The number one job of City Council is to be the gatekeeper of the purse.”

Callahan said when businesses are in the red, the first thing they do is initiate hiring freezes.

Said Callahan: “You can’t cut enough paper clips and pencils and paper to cut $4 million out of the budget. So where are we going to get this
$4 million five months from now? If we don’t start now, everybody in here knows where will be five months from now.”

After the meeting, Recchiuti actually mentioned the T-word, saying the hiring freeze is a first step to stave off a possible future tax increase.

Administration position

Both Donchez and David Brong, the city’s business administrator, addressed the issue before council voted.

The mayor, who calls himself a fiscal conservative, did not flat-out oppose the hiring freeze in his remarks to council, but diplomatically made his case why it is not needed.

“From day one, this administration has taken a very conservative approach to spending,” said Donchez, who took office in January.

“We are reviewing every aspect of spending. We’re looking at how we can do things more efficiently. I made the directive that we would have to be fiscally conservative and we would have to do more with less.”

Brong “strongly” suggested that council is missing the big picture by focusing on tactics – such as “let’s freeze hiring” -- rather than evolving to focus on strategy.

Brong indicated other tactics are being considered, such the administration submitting city contracts to council for review and approval.

After Brong and Donchez spoke, council member Karen Dolan commented:
“I’m not hearing a strong plea against this resolution from the administration. I’m not hearing the administration saying ‘this is a terrible thing’.”

While the administration did not agree with council on the need for a hiring freeze, both sides stressed they want to work together to solve the problem.