Building is booming in Belgrade, and city officials believe the time has come to add a full-time engineer and building inspector to the municipal payroll.

City Manager Ted Barkley said he and department heads have been discussing the idea as they begin working on the budget for the next fiscal year, but so far no formal recommendations have been proposed. Barkley said the consensus among staff is that it makes sense to hire professionals to do the work that is now being performed by private contractors, but he added that caution is being exercised to be sure the staff doesn’t grow so large that layoffs will be necessary if the pace of growth slows down.

“The problem is we’re too busy and we’re having trouble keeping up, but we don’t want to overstaff,” Barkley said. “We know the economy runs in cycles.”

Currently, the bulk of building inspection services are handled by a contract inspector. Planning Director Jason Karp, a certified building inspector, also assists, but his other responsibilities prevent him from helping enough to keep the contract inspector from carrying an extremely heavy load.

“It’s apparent we’re going to need another person in the position,” Karp said this week.

He added that he also would like to hire an additional counter person to provide administrative support for the planning office, and Barkley said the creation of other half-time administrative positions in various city offices has been discussed.

Karp noted that his department is funded by development fees, so adding the new employees there would not affect taxpayers directly. However, he agreed with Barkley that care must be taken not to grow the department too quickly, in case construction activity slows down.

“We want to be sure we don’t overhire and have to have layoffs,’ he said.

Barkley said this week that he hasn’t added up the total cost of the proposed new positions, but he did say that bringing an engineer on board would improve both fiscal and administrative efficiency.

“The way things are working right now, a full-time city engineer would cost less than what we’re paying (for engineering services), so part of the reason is 

cost saving, and part is that the value of having someone available all day every day, rather than hiring outside help by the hour, is significant,” he said.

Other Montana cities similar in size to Belgrade, such as Livingston, Lewistown and Havre, already employ full-time engineers and inspectors, Barkley said. He added that the ratio of Belgrade city employees to population is among the lowest in the state. While that means the city is operating efficiently, he said there is a limit to how much each employee can do.

“Of course people want higher levels of service, but to do it, we need more people,” Barkley said, pointing out that in the past five years Belgrade has added a considerable amount of infrastructure, including parks, a wastewater treatment plant, and more streets.

Whether the city will be able to bring on new employees is yet to be determined. The city’s fiscal year begins in July, but the budget won’t be adopted until the fall, in large part because it won’t be known until August what mill levy revenue will be.

Even before revenue projections come in, though, Barkley said the staffing proposals will be shared with the City Council so that preparations to bring new employees on board will be in place when it is known how much money is available.

Among other items being considered in the preliminary budgeting process are upgrades to the Public Works Department’s aging heavy equipment fleet, perhaps through a five-year, rotating lease program.

All budget considerations are being approached with an eye on making the best use of available resources, Barkley added.

“Nobody has asked for anything that’s unreasonable,” he said.