Like many employers, city of Steamboat also experiencing staff shortages

In keeping with national trends, the city of Steamboat Springs is experiencing critically low levels of staffing in several of its departments.

Steamboat City Manager Gary Suiter said several departments are struggling, but those with the most severe needs are Parks and Recreation, Steamboat Springs Transit and Steamboat Springs Police Department. Each are seeing a similar theme: housing in Steamboat being too expensive and difficult to come by.

“I think people really want to come into our community, but then they look at our cost of living and lack of housing, and that’s causing issues,” said Human Resources and Risk Manager Wendy Kuhlman. “No amount of adjustment to our pay ranges is really going to make up for the increase in cost of living we’ve seen over the last year or two.”

Parks and Recreation Director Angela Cosby said much of the issue is finding seasonal employees for jobs many would consider undesirable. Many of these jobs, Cosby said, involve being outside in extreme weather.

Cosby said the department has had the greatest issues with hiring staff members to work the city’s day care facilities, which has a trickle-down effect for adults across the community. In 2021, the city’s summer camp filled up in 30 seconds due to a shortage of employees.

“This is a way to keep parents and families employed and working and keep kids active and participating in activities as much as possible,” said Alexis Wolf, the city’s recreation manager. “All of those things go toward keeping a healthy economic community, with parents working and kids being busy.”

City Council has discussed building affordable housing units for city employees, and Cosby said that could open the department to a wider pool of candidates.

Suiter said the city has struggled to hire transit drivers because of the housing issue and unique challenges transit drivers faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We used to be able to find people that loved interacting with the public and loved helping them out,” Suiter said. “Then the pandemic hit, it became war with the passenger, and it turned into an ugly job.”

Drivers during the pandemic were tasked with enforcing mask rules some visitors may not have been used to, as well as following capacity issues that delayed riding times for passengers and led to conflicts.

Steamboat Police Chief Cory Christensen said he has had difficulties hiring and retaining police officers, particularly after police faced strong backlash throughout 2020.

Christensen said the department has just enough officers to provide 24/7 service, but the lack of extra staff makes it difficult for officers to take vacations, attend trainings or have multiple officers respond to an emergency.

“It’s really important that we’re out there learning new things and giving the officers tools to become better police officers,” Christensen said. “This makes it difficult to move forward with best practices.”

Officers start out making about $60,000 annually, according to the department.

Like other city departments and private businesses, Christensen said his department has struggled to hire out-of-town candidates who cannot afford housing for themselves and their families.

“If you’re a young police officer, and you want to put a career here in Steamboat and raise a family, I don’t know where you’re going to live,” Christensen said. “We’ve worked really hard on trying to attract people who want this Yampa Valley lifestyle.”

Steamboat Fire Chief Chuck Cerasoli said the fire department does not have any vacant positions, but he would like to hire more firefighters to staff the city’s two stations.

Cerasoli said the fire department does not deal with the same issues the police department does because firefighters are called to situations where people are generally relieved to see them.

“They’re typically happy to see us, because when we show up, we’re there to help them, and they’re appreciative,” Cerasoli said. “That makes the job much more fulfilling from the start.”

Suiter and Kuhlman said there are multiple solutions to look into, but the city is currently evaluating employee pay and is exploring providing housing, which they said they are hopeful will help quality employees take jobs.

“We’re all feeling the pain,” Kuhlman said.

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