Kalispell’s Severance Strains

By Beacon Staff

In a budget crisis where Kalispell’s leaders struggle to figure out some way to cut spending without cutting public employees, the recent departure of two top city officials might seem like it would free up some much-needed cash in the city’s coffers. But in reality the opposite is true, at least in the short term.

The city council fired then-City Manager Jim Patrick in October. That departure followed Kalispell Fire Chief Randy Brodehl’s decision to retire in July after several months where city officials refused to comment on his employment status, and relations had soured between the firefighters’ union and department leadership.

The departure of two high-ranking public officials, however, does not help the Kalispell City government when severance packages and the cost of replacement searches are taken into account. From a budgetary standpoint, Patrick’s and Brodehl’s absence adds to Kalispell’s financial strain.

According to City Attorney Charlie Harball, Patrick’s employment contract stipulated that if he was fired without cause – which he was – he was entitled to six months of salary and benefits. Patrick’s salary last year was $93,000, with an additional $400 monthly vehicle allowance. The line item in the current budget revision includes $100,000 for the city manager’s office. That breaks down roughly to $75,000 for Patrick’s severance package including accrued vacation and sick days, and $25,000 for the cost of advertising, recruiting and eventually hiring a new city manager, Harball said.

On top of that, Interim City Manager Myrt Webb is paid $4,000 per month by the city as part of a contract tentatively scheduled to last 160 days.

The added burden on Kalispell in the wake of Patrick’s dismissal underscores a point Webb made to the city council in a Nov. 24 budget memo where he warned that staff layoffs usually lead to immediate increases in spending from severance packages: “In the short run, when personnel are involved it is expensive to save money,” Webb wrote.

The financial impact of Brodehl’s departure, however, is harder to discern because his severance agreement with the city is confidential. Harball said the former chief’s package expires at the end of the year, but beyond that its terms are unclear. Local newspapers have published letters from former Kalispell firefighters questioning whether the city continues to pay for the use of a phone and vehicle for Brodehl while contemplating making layoffs to public safety departments. City Finance Director Amy Robertson dismissed those questions as rumors.

Kalispell is not planning on recruiting a replacement for Brodehl any time soon, and acting chief Dan Diehl will serve indefinitely. So will the expiration of Brodehl’s severance package free up some of the fire budget to help avoid any layoffs?

“Probably not,” Robertson said.

That’s because there is currently an extra firefighter on the department’s payroll. Two fire marshal positions were eliminated in September; one was absorbed into the building department and the other rejoined the fire department in a floating position to cover sick days or overtime by regular firefighters.

“He could absorb any savings that I would have had,” Robertson said.

Approaching the mid-point of the 2008-2009 fiscal year, the fire department has already burned through the $28,000 budgeted for severance for the entire staff, which comes out of the general fund and from revenue generated by the ambulance service.

All of which means that there are no easy answers to Kalispell’s budget conundrum, and while some staff vacancies could pay off down the road, for now, the departure of the city manager and fire chief aren’t doing the budget any favors.