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Applicants frustrated over hiring delays at Metro Parks

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Posted at 5:01 PM, Jul 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-13 19:19:17-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — They request millions of dollars each year to help hire new people, but Metro Parks says they still can’t fill positions.

Council members say frustration is growing as departments like these, request even more taxpayer money every year with little to nothing to show for it.

A few weeks ago a man approached NewsChannel 5 Investigates to say he heard about Metro Parks struggling to hire seasonal workers. He applied back in April and waited to hear back.

We’re now in July and he says it’s been one delay after another. He checks in with Metro Parks and their HR department but believes they forgot his application.

Metro Parks tells us they haven’t found anyone in their files still waiting on a response from April, but the man asked us to conceal his identity because he would love nothing more than to get the call. So for the sake of this story, let’s call him Chris.

“I love the parks. I believe in the parks. I grew up in the parks,” Chris said.

The more we heard, the more we thought it was hard to imagine a more qualified candidate for the job. He has worked in both parks and golf courses.

“I was under the impression that just fill out this paperwork and we’re going to get you to work right away because we need people right now,” Chris said.

Metro Parks told us they’re struggling to hire just like every other department, but there’s one difference. We’ve learned how understaffed golf courses could leave more than half a million dollars on the table every season when you add up lost golf cart fees and greens fees. Money that goes directly into the city’s general fund to help any number of Metro programs.

You would think that would be the first order of business the day after our NewsChannel 5 investigation, but that’s where you’re wrong.

On that day the Metro Parks Board approved a 3% merit raise and a 4% cost of living raise for their director Monique Odom. The same director said we misinterpreted a conversation with Metro HR on whether she should raise pay for seasonal workers to get more of them in the door.

To be clear, Metro Parks controls how it spends the money the city gives it, including what it pays employees.

“I do get concerned that there’s this pot of money here and people aren’t being hired. So where is that money going,” Chris said.

Metro Parks tells us they’ve already increased pay for seasonal workers to at least $11 an hour, but they still advertise the position as paying between just over $7 an hour, which Metro HR director Shannon Hall says may prevent some from applying.

“So my recommendation is let’s change the minimums because I think that does more damage to our narrative as well,” Hall said.

According to Metro HR, Director Odom turned down this recommendation. At least for now. Remember, some people have already said they’re willing to work with or without the pay bump.

Chris says not only is he willing to work for the $11 an hour, he would volunteer his time if it meant at the very least getting his foot in the door.

If you have workers telling you they’re ready, the question is what’s standing in the way of processing these applications?

Metro Parks declined an on-camera interview, but offered the following statement that read in part:

“As we have previously stated, this year has been rough on our HR Team. We’ve had people out on extended leave for a variety of reasons beginning in April. Even now, we have a staffer who will be out for at least another month. For a parks system our size, Metro Parks has been understaffed and underfunded for years, and it’s going to take a few years for corrective action to have an impact. While we have returned un-spent funding to the General Fund during COVID-19, it bears repeating that in March 2020, a spending freeze and hiring freeze were implemented for non-safety departments. Compounded by extensive labor pool shortages and the Parks Department’s seasonal needs, a higher rate of returned funds resulted. Other Metro departments have returned even larger percentages during this same, and for similar reasons. We are currently working with Metro Human Resources to intensify efforts toward recruitment and hiring and to address part-time and seasonal pay.”

Metro Council Member Russ Bradford also serves as chair of the Parks Committee for Metro Council. He says the first time he heard of hiring issues to this extent over at Metro Parks was only during a recent budget hearing.

Bradford could be seen in the back left corner as Odom explained that she needed 14 new park police officers at a cost of just over $1 million. That’s even though they requested $324,000 last year to hire five officers, which council members found out they never did.

“If we can’t even fill the five positions you have budgeted last year, why should we spend a million dollars for another 14,” Bradford said.

They later compromised to add seven budgeted positions, but Bradford says it’s something of a trend with several Metro departments. They promise to hire with the money they’re given but have little to nothing to show for it.

“How can we provide oversight? How can we protect the taxpayers when we don’t know what’s going on and these departments keep stuff from us,” Bradford said.

Metro Parks addressed this in their statement by saying:

“There are positions that we, like other departments, have found challenging to fill. However, that does not negate the need for the positions we need now nor does it lessen the impact on current employees who take on the additional work to maintain programs, services, and other departmental amenities. In other words, just because we were unable to fill vacancies from last year does not mean these and other positions are not needed for this year. We asked for additional Parks Police and Maintenance staff because that is what is needed going forward.”

It's not the hiring issue that feels new for Bradford. It’s what little has been done to fix the problem. He says $11 an hour just won’t cut it.

“$11? There are most places in retail and fast-food places paying more than that and you’re inside,” Bradford said.

While pay certainly could entice new workers, some say they just need a chance to show their value. Chris says he's ready and willing to work, as soon as he gets the call.

Metro Parks went on to say they plan on meeting with Metro HR next month to talk about recruitment strategies as well as possibly adjusting their pay range.