Surprise, El Mirage to extend holiday off time to employees

The Arizona Republic
Saturday, December 3, 2011
Dustin Gardiner

Basic city services will be shuttered for residents in two West Valley cities for more than a week over the holidays, to the chagrin of some taxpayers and the delight of city workers.

Employees in Surprise and El Mirage are getting extended paid holidays that will be added to their regular vacation days.

In Surprise, employees, excluding police officers, fire fighters and trash collectors, will leave work at 6 p.m. on Dec. 22 and won't report back until Jan. 3. City Hall will be closed, meaning residents can't access some services such as paying water bills or applying for business licenses and building permits.

The days off for Surprise employees include three extra vacation days, combined with weekends, regular holiday days off and the city's four-day work week.

School districts and colleges have long had extended closures during the holidays. But the 11-day closure of City Hall is a rarity among local governments in the Valley.

Mesa, Phoenix, Glendale, Scottsdale, Maricopa County and state-government offices will be open for some portion of the week between Christmas and New Year's. Most will be closed Dec. 26 and Jan. 2 to recognize the holidays, which fall on weekends.

City managers in Surprise and El Mirage said the additional time off is a means of compensating employees who aren't getting cost of living increases or other raises this year.

"There is a significant reduction in public demand to do business at city offices during the holiday week," Surprise City Manager Chris Hillman said. "The economic downturn has meant layoffs and no raises for our employees since 2007, so this slow period is an opportunity to give them additional time to spend with their friends and families."

Hillman said the extra vacation days are a way to show appreciation for the city's employees without spending more money than was already budgeted for staff salaries.

Some residents and a government watchdog group said the lengthy holiday is a waste of public money. They said private-sector employees have weathered the same economic storms without extended paid time off.

"They've missed what's gone on in the private sector if they think city government has been hit hard by the recession," said Kevin McCarthy, president of the Arizona Tax Research Association. "The struggles in the private sector have been considerably greater than the struggles of government employees."

Other residents said they don't mind the closure. Albert Bash, a Surprise resident, said he thinks the time off is fair given that city workers have survived layoffs and aren't getting raises.

"They've taken so many hits, the city employees," he said. "Three days, I'm sure it's well deserved."

In El Mirage, city offices will be closed the week between Christmas and New Year's, Dec. 26-30, and reopen Jan. 3. City Council members voted 6-1 to approve the extended closure of services. Police and fire personnel will remain on duty and the city court will be open part of the week.

Peoria employees got a paid week off for the holidays in 2009. At the time, city officials said they were trying to remain a competitive employer by offering extra vacation in lieu of raises.

Surprise Mayor-elect Sharon Wolcott, who takes office Jan. 3, wasn't happy about Hillman's decision.

She said the move should have been voted on in a public meeting; Hillman instead talked with the current mayor and council before making the announcement Monday.

"My personal feeling is that every day we're not providing services, we're not doing our job," Wolcott said. "I just think that if you are going to shut the city down for a week, that needs to be a public discussion."

Surprise has more than 600 full-time employees who will receive the three extra vacation days, which combines regular time off for Christmas and New Year's with the city's four-day, 10 hours-per-day work week.

The Arizona Republic requested figures showing the city's payroll costs for the three vacation days, but the city did not provide that information before press time.

Public-safety employees and other staff who work during the holiday will receive three days to take off at a later time.

Hillman said city staff is being proactive to ensure any business gets taken care of before they leave for the holiday. They are contacting any businesses or contractors with open permits to inform them of the closure.

Councilman Mike Woodard, a retired accountant, supports Hillman's decision. Woodard said he knows from working as a manager for a private company that employers "don't get much" out of their staffs between the holidays.

"Things just kind of shut down," he said. "In my opinion, it's not wasteful. It's showing deep appreciation and regard for the job (city employees) do."