City of Steamboat Springs hopeful new salary adjustments can help attract, retain employees |

City of Steamboat Springs hopeful new salary adjustments can help attract, retain employees

Scott Franz
A Steamboat Springs Police Department patrol cruiser drives down Lincoln Avenue on Wednesday afternoon. The city of Steamboat is proposing to raise the wages of police officers and other professional groups that are making comparatively less than their counterparts in other communities.
Scott Franz

— When police officers leave Steamboat Springs, they take with them the tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of training they got from here.

Then it takes the city eight to 10 months to fully replace that officer, including four months of field training.

In the past five years, 17 police officers have left the city for a number of reasons, including higher-paying jobs in places like the Front Range.

If the replacement is a certified in-state candidate, the Steamboat Springs Police Department will spend a minimum of $48,400 to train the officer before he or she is allowed to go solo, according to police Chief Joel Rae.

Turnover takes a toll.

With no salary increases for any of the city’s professional groups other than firefighters and paramedics since 2009, the city’s management team is hoping to implement some pay raises it thinks will help the city attract and retain employees as well as prevent some turnover that is occurring citywide.

The package includes $735,000 worth of salary and benefit increases that would impact about 129 of the city’s 216 benefited employees.

It’s not just the city’s police department that is feeling the impact of frozen salaries and high turnover.

In recent weeks, the transit department has been working to hire 18 seasonal bus drivers and so far has been unable to fill all of the slots.

“The $15.63 starting salary has not increased since 2008, making it increasingly difficult to attract the type of applicants you want representing the city to our customer base,” Anderson recently wrote in a memo to the Steamboat Springs City Council.

The cost to hire and train a driver can include $1,500 for a commercial driver’s license, $340 in advertising and background checks, and $160 for medical and drug testing, among other expenses.

He said that in the past five years, 11 full-time drivers, 88 seasonal drivers and one dispatcher have left their jobs.

The city’s building and grounds department has lost 22 employees since 2009.

Public works has struggled to fill an open snow plow position.

The council recently requested all of this information about employee turnover to help it decide how it will vote on the pay plan that would bring the salaries of many city employees up to market rate, which was determined by comparing Steamboat’s salaries to places like Durango and Breckenridge.

The turnover data recently compiled by the city shows that since 2009, 49 employees left the city for higher-paying jobs.

That reason for leaving was cited by about 40 percent of all the 124 employees who left or were terminated from the city’s ranks in the last four years.

“Not all turnover is bad for an organization, and we anticipate having a certain amount that is both voluntary and involuntary,” City Manager Deb Hinsvark said Thursday. “But it’s disheartening when you watch valued employees walk away because (their job) is worth more somewhere else.”

On her desk was a posting for a public works director job in Craig that one of her employees alerted her to because it could offer a higher salary than the same job here in Steamboat.

City officials worry that without any salary adjustments, the city will continue to be less competitive in the local hiring market and struggle to attract and retain quality employees.

Consensus elusive

The latest pay proposal arrives after years of furloughs and budget cuts the city implemented in response to the Great Recession.

But after hours of discussion and debate, a council consensus on the plan has proven elusive.

“If I were a council person at this point in time, it would be a tough decision for me, too,” Hinsvark said.

Some council members have said the price tag is too high while others see it as a sustainable and reasonable proposal.

The council’s debate about the plan also is a clash between some members who think it is time to better compensate employees who have sustained years of furloughs and frozen salaries and other members who said they value those employees but think the raises need to be weighed against other factors such as the fact the economy still is in a slow recovery mode and city employees have generous paid time off plans.

Some also want the raises targeted more toward only those departments that suffer from higher turnover than what would be experienced in the private sector.

The start of the Great Recession serves as an example of why some council members are leery of the price tag of the proposed pay raises.

In 2009, Steamboat’s sales tax revenue, the primary revenue source for the city, dropped by about 15 percent.

On the other hand, the city has saved millions in recent years by reducing employee hours and awarding annual bonuses instead of salary increases since 2010.

“We have not just tightened personnel budgets, we’ve tightened all budgets,” City Manager Deb Hinsvark said Wednesday. “As a result, operationally, we’ve returned anywhere from $1 million to $2.6 million back to the bottom line annually.”

Hinsvark and other city officials are looking to pick back up a plan that was talked about but not implemented five years ago.

She said it was in 2008 that the city first conducted a market study and found several government employees here in Steamboat were making significantly less than government employees in cities comparable to here.

In the city’s eyes, a slow and gradual economic recovery has presented the opportunity to get salaries back to market.

“This all started before the recession when the city recognized they needed to do an intensive overhaul of the salary ranges because the market had moved and the city hadn’t moved with them,” Hinsvark said.

In addition to getting back to market, the raises also would work to alleviate a problem called compression that exists when veteran city employees are making as much as new hires.

Hinsvark said that’s apparent today when one of the police officers who has worked for the city for four years is making as much as the officer they are training.

Budget looms

The pay raises are likely to be a big focus again Tuesday night in Centennial Hall when the newly seated council will work to pass a first reading of the city’s 2014 budget.

Based on recent interviews with council members, it doesn’t appear the current plan has enough votes to pass in its current form.

Incoming council member Scott Ford, for example, has questioned the city’s cost-of-living comparisons and thinks a market study isn’t the best way to adjust salaries.

He told the council last week the current salaries may be the “new normal.”

A majority of council members have indicated they are supportive of raises at some level and are hopeful of a compromise with city staff.

It likely all will depend on the price tag and the implementation.

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10

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