ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) — After the city’s Office of Internal Audit released a report on the city’s hiring practices, a city councilor suggests the audit points to “abusive practices.” At the very least, the issues might make the city’s hiring practices seem “unfair,” the audit says.

The city uses several classifications for new hires. “Unclassified” employees generally serve at will and can be fired for any reason. And the audit shows that in the last seven years, the number of unclassified positions at the city nearly doubled, while the overall full-time employee count at the city has only increased by 14%. The result is an unresolved question noted in the audit: Were unclassified positions at the city created to justify paying employees higher salaries, even though their qualifications are similar to existing classified positions?

The audit says there’s no way to know. That’s because more than half of the unclassified positions the audit examined had no associated job description.

To examine the issue, auditors examined a sample of 74 employees in unclassified positions. All totaled, the annual salaries for those employees add up to $4.3 million of taxpayer funds. But only 16 of those employees had applications or a resume on file with the city, and only 10 had evidence to prove they met the qualifications for the job, according to the audit.

City Councilor Louie Sanchez, representing the Central West Side, says the city needs to address the questions around hiring practices.

“This report makes it clear that changes are needed to our Merit Ordinance and personnel policies to curb these drastic increases [and] prevent further abusive practices,” Sanchez said in a press release. “The report shows that many unclassified positions receive large salaries that may not be justified by job duties and experience.”

The city department with the largest number of unclassified employees is the Albuquerque Police Department, the audit found. As they took on staff to comply with U.S. Department of Justice requirements, the police department added numerous unclassified employees in the fiscal year 2022, the audit notes.

Other departments have seen an increase in unclassified workers as well. The city’s Department of Technology and Innovation has transferred employees from classified to unclassified positions, the audit notes.

At the heart of the matter is the ease of hiring unclassified employees. Generally, unclassified new hires are easier to approve than classified hires because of the lack of competitive requirements, the audit notes. The city’s highest management positions and executive positions are particularly prone to these sorts of issues, auditors add.

The audit reveals that over the last eight years, “a number of senior management and deputy director employees received large salary increases, though their job duties for these positions did not change and the increases were not based on their job performance.” For 37 employees identified, their salaries increased by a total of more than $1 million over eight years and weren’t subject to the city’s 5% pay increase cap.”

To fix the discrepancies, the audit makes recommendations. Among them is the recommendation that the city revises the Personnel Policy to explicitly prohibit the creation of unclassified positions simply to justify paying workers more for the same complexity of work as existing positions.

In their response to the auditor’s recommendation, the city’s Human Resources Department notes that the “fundamental purpose of an unclassified position is to provide flexibility for the Administrations in implementing goals and objectives during the administrative term.” The response adds that “maintaining that flexibility allows for the innovation and efficient implementation of new ideas.”

The city’s existing compensation system was implemented in 1999. The audit notes that an external review has never been conducted, but the city has taken steps to find a consultant to study the system.