City hanging onto its staff

For now, anyway. But filling vacancies is tough, as pay is higher in the private sector.

The hemorrhaging of employees from City Hall has abated, but infusions of new blood are still needed.

“The good news is that we’ve stopped the loss,” said City Administrator Mary Jo Briggs, describing last year’s “exodus” of 26 city employees.

The bad news, Briggs added, is that 16 vacancies remain in the city roster of more than 140.

Time consuming and costly, employee recruitment may require dollars and hours not readily available

“We’ve exhausted our employee recruitment for they year,” Briggs said, stressing that senior management spent up to 20 percent of its time seeking and considering employee applicants last year.

But the effort has paid off so far, Briggs said, pointing to the 11 new employees hired in the first four months of 2007. Adding new employees to the human resources department has greatly improved the city’s ability to find, interview and hire new workers, Briggs said.

The new hires help make up for the 18 resignations, four firings and the four workers who retired last year. The deficit – especially in the public works department – stalled projects and focused much of the executive department’s attention on finding ways to fill staffing gaps.

Briggs believes the city must ratchet up efforts to keep the employees it has while enticing engineers and other highly trained workers.

“We aren’t losing folks anymore but engineering vacancies have remained empty,” said Public Works Director Randy Witt. “Staff (positions) that deliver capital projects and development review has remained understaffed.”

Efforts to seek out replacements have elicited only “limited responses,” he said.

The key to enticing and keeping engineers is pay, according to Briggs.

“Usually, the city pays $80,000 (to engineers),” she said. “The private sector pays between $90,000 to $117,000 a year. That’s not a good situation for us.”

Briggs is proposing that the city boost engineer pay to an average of $85,000. Her report received mixed reviews from the council.

“The message is loud and clear,” said Councilman Bill Knobloch, commending the report. “We have to make decisions regarding salaries to be competitive.”

Councilman Kjell Stoknes also leaned toward Briggs’ assessment.

“The market speaks very loudly,” he said. “The proof is in the employees lost and not successfully filled.”

Councilman Nezam Tooloee, however, said the report failed to consider that the city should, perhaps, simply do fewer projects.

“We do have other options (that don’t) mean we have to turn to permanent employees,” he said. “One option is to do less work.”

Tooloee also doubted the severity of the city’s recruitment problem, but agreed that limited-term positions have proven undesirable for many potential employees.

“Limited term positions are silly and don’t work for anybody,” he said.

While the administration and the council didn’t see eye-to-eye on all aspects of the report, Briggs said common ground is increasingly being achieved between the two branches of city government – and that is also contributing to greater staff retention.

“The culture is changing very slowly,” she said, referring to some employee unhappiness about unclear directions given by the administration and council, who were often at odds. “But employees have seen the council and administration talking. We’re talking about our structure and our roles. I think that’s an important piece of keeping people here.”

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