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Council supports decrease in use of Syracuse hiring practice

Joseph A

A few days after a state audit criticized a long-used Syracuse hiring practice to get around civil service laws, the Common Council probed the issue, but councilors came down more on the side of the mayor's office than the auditors.

On Thursday the state's Authorities Budget Office (ABO) said Syracuse should stop using its Urban Renewal Agency (SURA) as a backdoor way of hiring city employees. It also recommended SURA be dissolved. 

The Common Council's finance committee Monday morning asked questions of city finance commissioner Dave DelVecchio, who is also on SURA's board.

Much of the discussion focused on how the city pays the employees who are on SURA's payroll and not the city's. The authorization of a $200,000 advance to SURA for some of the payroll costs is in front of the council. 

SURA is a public benefit corporation tasked with dealing with blighted neighborhoods and is not an official city department. As such, its employees don't need to take civil service exams.

The mayor's office - and some councilors - contend that allows the city to be more nimble in creating new positions and hiring employees faster. It could also allow employees to be fired more easily since they are not able to join the Civil Service Employees Union (CSEA).

The ABO audit found 103 people were listed as SURA employees as of this summer and it contends many do no SURA-related tasks. The number is down to 98 now, DelVecchio said Monday.

"It should not be used to employ people that may not have passed the civil service test. That’s not the role of the Urban Renewal Agency," says councilor Kathleen Joy.

Joy suggested the council could withhold the $200,000 advance as a way to encourage the city to move more employees into official city departments.

"I'm concerned that if we add this additional $200,000 there is no incentive to reduce the ranks," Joy says.

Mayor Stephanie Miner contends she is working to reduce the number of employees who are not doing SURA work - the SURA payroll is down 14 percent since Miner took office - but it will take time.

This practice has been used long before Miner took office.

Her chief of staff, Bill Ryan, told the council that making the moves all at once would be catastrophic to city functions. He says his office will continue to move people off the SURA ranks.

"Would I be happy that everybody working for the city was on the city payroll and not on this other payroll that seems to be a phantom payroll with phantom rules? Yes, I would," says Councilor Pat Hogan.

But Hogan agrees with the mayor's stance that it does make it easier for new positions to be created.

The council delayed a vote on the advance Monday, as many questions remained unanswered after the committee meeting.

Councilors stopped well short of supporting the ABO's recommendation that SURA be completely dissolved and replaced with the newly authorized land bank.

You can follow reporter Ryan Delaney on Twitter @RyanWRVO