The Haines Borough Assembly on Tuesday approved hiring a full-time executive assistant to manager Mark Earnest, a position that would cost an estimated $81,000 annually.

“It was a busy workload a year ago, and it’s even busier now,” Earnest said. “We just need to find a person who would fit the criteria and be a good fit, and there’s plenty of work to do.”

The position has been vacant since July, when Debra Schnabel resigned. At that time, the assistant was a non-benefited, temporary position budgeted at a rate of $57,000 per year. Schnabel previously worked about five years for the borough as a contractor and currently serves on the assembly.

“There has been nothing that I’m aware of that has prevented the manager from employing an assistant in this position for the last eight months,” Schnabel said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Schnabel and assemblyman Norm Smith on Tuesday voted against the new hire.

“I do recall that we recently (in October) empowered the manager to hire consultants for specific projects, if needed,” Smith said. “The current arguments for this new position are the same arguments that were presented to the assembly to create the public facilities director’s position, which I recall paid $80,000 a year (salary).”

None of the $28,359 budgeted for the remaining six months of the assistant’s employment in fiscal year 2012 has been spent.

Money for the new position, that includes benefits, would come from money drawn from grants and the capital improvement, economic development and general funds, Earnest said. He suggested a starting wage of at least $25 an hour.

Earnest said he has been “somewhat reluctant” to fill the opening, but borough staff is “running out of steam.”

“I have a very, very deep concern about not only the current fiscal financial situation, but the future, and that concerns me greatly,” he said. “Does this run against what I would like to do? Yes, but at the same time, I think we can find ways to use other funds that don’t compete with library, do not compete with the school district.”

The assembly in January directed Earnest to hire an assistant by April 10. Also in January, members approved an 18-month contract extension and 2 percent pay raise for Earnest, upping his annual salary to $108,120.

The borough’s personnel committee then recommended the move to a permanent assistant position with benefits and helped prepare a revised job description for recruiting candidates.

“We talk a lot about economic development and how we improve that in our community, and I’ve come to believe that the biggest role for the borough and the assembly in economic development is shoring up our infrastructure and improving our infrastructure,” said Joanne Waterman, committee chair. “I think the more assistance that the administrative department has being able to do that is a good thing.”

She referred to communication from residents Jerry Erny and Anne Marie Palmieri that expressed concerns about filling the position.

Palmieri in an interview this week said she wasn’t necessarily opposed to the assistant job, but she had qualms about the assembly’s process and timing. She said the borough is facing a potential budget shortfall due to uncertainty at the state and federal level.

“My suggestion was that before the borough commits to an assistant manager position that’s $81,000 and a permanent position, that they wait to find out what their income is going to be for next year,” Palmieri said.

The assembly on Tuesday discussed delaying the hire until at least July 1, the start of the next fiscal year, or continuing the position as budgeted – non-benefited and temporary – but brought neither option to a vote.

“These days, what I see going on there at the office is we’re overworking our staff, we’re giving them more and more to do, and they’re not going to be able to keep up,” said assemblyman Jerry Lapp.

Schnabel told the Chilkat Valley News this week that upon her hire in January 2011, at a wage of nearly $23 an hour without benefits, she told Earnest she wished to have her pay bumped to $30 an hour by June 30, to match her previous pay as a contractor to the borough. After reading in the upcoming budget that Earnest had set her pay at $25 an hour, she resigned, she said.

Earnest had no comment on Schnabel’s pay.