McAlester is making a financial turnaround sooner than expected in the wake of the citywide lockdown in response to the COVID 19 pandemic, says City Manager Pete Stasiak.
That's prompted him to begin calling employees back to work who were furloughed in the spring.
"We've made a lot of changes to staff over the past couple of weeks," said Stasiak, as he related how he is moving forward to bring the city closer to its pre-furlough staffing levels.
Stasiak said 21 furloughed full-time city employees have already been called back to work. Two part-time employees have also been called back, and a space left open due to retirement is being filled, he said.
"Everybody's back except for four employees, and those employees have been notified and will be back Monday," Stasiak said.
Stasiak spoke about the upswing during the Tuesday night city council meeting and elaborated further during a Wednesday interview with the News-Capital.
"When we hit the peak of the pandemic, we were down by 25.3% of our employees," Stasiak said. Some positions that are now vacant are due to some employees accepting retirement incentives, but Stasiak said he will continue looking to see if more of those positions can be filled in the coming months.
"Things are coming back together for the city," Stasiak said.
"We're extremely pleased that the turnaround is happening and we can call back employees who were furloughed," he added. "We're doing everything we can to get this city back together."
Stasiak attributed much of the city's financial upswing to the federal stimulus checks that went to individuals in hopes they would stimulate the economy, as well as the $600 per week in federal unemployment compensation, on top of state benefits, that was included in the federal CARES package.
"The $1,200 in stimulus payments that the federal government gave people, along with $600 a week in unemployment benefits, have kept our community strong," Stasiak said. "People have been out there spending money."
Some of that spending has been reflected in the city's most recent sales tax return of $1,368,163 distributed in July through the Oklahoma Tax Commission.
"Our July 10 sales tax returns are about $13,000 higher than the same time last year," Stasiak said. The July 10 returns by the OTC reflects sales taxes collected May 16 through June 15, Stasiak said.
The city of McAlester has also received money through the CARES program, with an initial payment of $1,250,000, said Stasiak. The city has applied for an additional $367,000.
"It's all for COVID-related expenses," Stasiak said.
Not only is the city in the process of calling furloughed employees back to work — city employees who remained on the job did not have to take a previously-planned unpaid furlough day for July, said Stasiak.
All non-uniformed city employees as well as some firefighters were scheduled to take an unpaid furlough day off — but Stasiak said that was no longer necessary as the city's finances continued to improve.
"We were able to cancel the furlough day last Friday," Stasiak said.
Furlough days set for upcoming months will be considered as they come up on the calendar.
"As we move forward, month-by-month, we will look at furlough days," said Stasiak, who would like to eliminate them completely.
Stasiak said the latest actions are not designed to be temporary call-backs for the employees who were furloughed.
"As we bring employees back, we are funding their position through the end of the year," said Stasiak, referring to the 2020-2021 Fiscal Year, which began July 1 and extends through June 30, 2021. The city is also purchasing the equipment and supplies these workers need to do their jobs, he said.
He plans to stay on course with no more furloughs, barring some unexpected, catastrophic event, Stasiak said.
When the city hit the peak of the problem, the city was down by 25.3% of its workforce, the city manager said.
"It was right around the first part of April, when we started furloughing employees." Stasiak said.
The city was already facing financial challenges due to budget shortfalls, when a month-long lockdown of all but essential services went into effect not only in McAlester, but across Oklahoma in the spring, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sales tax returns for July, reflecting spending in portions of the two previous months, were expected by many to be much lower than last year's return for the same time period.
During the Tuesday night council meeting, Ward 1 Councilor Weldon Smith asked about filling the vacant position for an animal control officer. That's been a concern of constituents, Smith noted.
"That was a retried employee," Stasiak said, meaning the position became vacant when the previous animal control officer retired and has not since been refilled.
"We're going to be looking at this in August," Stasiak said.
Stasiak's report brought a comment from McAlester Mayor John Browne.
"It's nice to have some good news," Browne said. "Hopefully, things are moving in the right direction."
Contact James Beaty at email@example.com.