Steamboat saved $4 million last year, but not for a good reason

The Steamboat Springs Police Department welcomed three new officers during a pinning ceremony at city hall on Monday, Dec. 12, though the department still has 11 positions vacant.
Steamboat Springs Police Department/Courtesy photo

The city’s struggle to hire for dozens of open positions in 2022 ended up saving Steamboat Springs about $4 million, though those savings aren’t really a good thing.

This money is often referred to as vacancy savings, but city Finance Director Kim Weber said she felt that phrase was too positive.

“It was really the inability to hire,” Weber said. “This isn’t a good thing because now we have $6 million that we anticipated through the budget process but that we weren’t able to spend because we weren’t able to hire all the staff.”

Weber said there was another $1.2 million in savings for health insurance claims, which is likely down in part because the city’s plan didn’t need to cover as many people as originally anticipated.

“I can only hope that we can do lots of wonderful recruiting this year and not see that number … at the beginning of next year,” said City Council President Robin Crossan at the Tuesday, March 7, meeting.

The city currently has 33 full-time positions open, with some of those being multiple openings for jobs like police officer or bus driver, according to Human Resources Director Wendy Ecklund. In the coming months, the city will also be recruiting to fill nearly 150 seasonal openings.

More than 100 of those seasonal openings are in the Parks and Recreation department, which also has six full-time positions open. The police department currently has 11 vacancies for full-time roles. Planning Department staffers have been difficult to hire as well.

Ecklund said the number of applications significantly varies depending on the position, with some being easier to fill and others sitting vacant for months.

“We have struggled a great deal to get applicants for fleet mechanics and until last week; this position remained open for more than eight months,” Ecklund said in an email. “Labor positions, transit and (the police department) have been the most difficult to fill.”

City Manager Gary Suiter said there is a lot of competition on the labor market, and despite the city’s efforts to increase pay, it can be difficult to keep up with private companies. He said the city has worked to conduct more frequent salary surveys to ensure Steamboat’s pay is competitive, but that hasn’t been enough.

“We continue to lose people because of inadequate pay or housing,” Suiter said. “It’s still difficult sometimes to keep up with the private sector who can respond more rapidly.”

For example, with the mechanic position the city was just able to fill, Suiter said some private employers are paying up to $50 an hour, which is well above the city’s salary schedule and more than many of the city’s supervisors are paid.

“It’s not in our salary plan to pay mechanics $100,000 a year,” Suiter said. “We’ve been aggressive with our salary plans, and sometimes even then it’s not enough for specific positions.”

The city has responded swiftly to raise pay in the past, like in 2021 when the transit department was down 16 bus drivers. In addition to adding more than $1 an hour to drivers’ wages, the city also offered to subsidize housing by $500 a month and gave them a ski pass at Steamboat Resort. 

Last year, the city also took steps to increase police officer pay to be more competitive. Before the change, officers’ counterparts at the Routt County Sheriff’s Office had a starting salary about $13,000 higher than the police department.

“We have to be nimble and responsive in that way when the problem becomes acute,” Suiter said. “It’s a continual process and hopefully it will smooth out. … The city is a great place to work and those that come to work here are generally happy and have good longevity with the city.”

Raising salaries too quickly can cause issues as well, as some new hires can come in with higher pay than employees who have been with the city for years. Suiter said this can have “trickle down effects” on the rest of city staff, so they are closely looking at internal pay equity.

When all these positions are vacant, it puts more pressure on the city staff that remains — staff that is working to implement significant projects like new short-term rental regulations and the largest annexation effort in decades.

Suiter informed City Council on Tuesday that his executive assistant Rachel Lundy would be leaving the city to take a job with the U.S. Department of State. He said he is concerned about how they will fill her role in the interim, as she handles much of the city’s special events processes.

“We’re already concerned about the workload,” Suiter said. “The employees here are always willing to step up. I’m very proud of them and (their) willingness to commit and step up and backfill that just like in any organization, but there comes a limit to where an organization begins to suffer from stress and burnout.”

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