Mesa has hired more than 440 people over the last 12 months despite a citywide hiring freeze instituted in February 2002 to ease the city's growing budget problem.
The hiring freeze has been one of Mesa's strategies for staying afloat during the crisis. Officials estimate 252 jobs left vacant in 2002 saved $5.6 million. Mesa has 3,598 full-time and 848 part-time employees.
The city budget office recently revised the projected deficit for next year, raising it to $32 million from $28 million, said City Manager Mike Hutchinson. Mayor Keno Hawker and others have said layoffs are possible, but only as a last resort.
The Tribune learned through a public records request about those positions to which the freeze hasn't applied.
Many of the jobs filled in 2002 were "mission-critical," Hutchinson said. They included 60 police officers, six firefighters and a dozen 911 operators. The total also included 184 seasonal employees, such as lifeguards, who were paid less than $12 an hour.
During the same period, 357 city employees retired, resigned or were fired.
"We've evaluated every opening that came up," Hutchinson said, adding that the city's policy is a "selective" hiring freeze. He said employment restrictions will continue, but critical positions will be filled when they become vacant.
One city leader questioned whether all the hires were necessary in tough financial times.
"That's shocking," said City Councilwoman Janie Thom, upon hearing the number of people hired by the city last year. "I didn't really think that the hiring freeze was very factual, because I kept seeing new faces."
Thom took aim at several positions relating to arts programs, including two people hired for the new performing arts center — a facility that is under construction and isn't scheduled to open until 2005.
Those positions are: • Randy Vogel, the arts center's administrator, who is making $79,913 a year.
• Julia DeHesus, a marketing specialist for the arts center, who is making $44,897 a year.
• Andreya Hernandez-Garcia, the community arts coordinator, who is making $42,806 a year.
"I have always questioned the priorities there," Thom said.
Hutchinson defended the hirings, saying he was advised by experts to fill the positions early to make sure the arts center had shows booked, tickets sold and enough staffing when it opens.
The decision to fill those positions was supported by Joanie Flatt, president of the Mesa Arts and Entertainment Alliance and a member of the center's design committee. She said some shows have to be booked three years in advance.
"Otherwise we'll have a big building in the middle of downtown that is empty and not generating any revenue," Flatt said.
Vogel said he has a 10-page list of things to do before the center opens.
Hawker said he was unaware of most hirings last year. Hutchinson has final say on who is hired for all but a few top positions, Hawker said.
The mayor said would have preferred the city hire public safety employees over personnel for the arts center.
"I'm not that big of an arts supporter to begin with," Hawker said.