City official gets housing for life |

City official gets housing for life

Carolyn SackariasonAspen, CO Colorado
Phil Overeynder, the city's public works director, works in the field. He has secured a city-owned residence in Aspen for life through an employment contract. (Aspen Times file)

ASPEN Aspen’s public works director and his wife have guaranteed housing for rest of their lives – an unprecedented exception to the city’s housing policy that elected officials approved behind closed doors.Phil Overeynder must work full time for the city for the next five years and then part time for five years, according to an agreement signed May 8. After that, he can enjoy retiring in the city-owned house on the Marolt Open Space, where he’s lived since 1995. Overeynder, 59, oversees the city’s water, electric and streets departments. His deal is unlike any other city employee’s. The current policy stipulates that if a city employee who lives in city-owned housing resigns, that employee has six months to vacate. There is no retirement housing benefit attached to any employee except Overeynder.City Manager Steve Barwick confirmed that there is no other contract of its kind for any other city employee. City Hall employs about 280 full-time staffers.The deal came after Overeynder attempted to resign last month to take a similar position in Ukiah, Calif. But because Barwick values Overeynder as an employee, he went to the City Council in executive session and asked it to make an exception to the housing policy.”After hearing Phil’s announcement that he was leaving the city, I asked him what I could do to make him change his mind, and he said he was leaving because of the lack of an appropriate place to live upon retirement,” Barwick said.

“It was a simple business decision,” Barwick added. “The upside of having Phil for 10 years far outweighs the cost of dedicating housing to him.” Barwick said Overeynder did not request the lifetime housing; rather, it was offered to him. “We negotiated, and I wanted 10 years’ worth of his time,” he said. “He’s fascinated by his job and wants to keep working.”Overeynder and his wife, Deborah, pay $1,540 a month to live at 40176 Highway 82, the only house on the Marolt Open Space. Overeynder is one of the highest-paid employees in City Hall, making about $110,000 a year. He has worked for the city for 15 years.The agreement also stipulates that if Overeynder dies before Deborah, she will be able to live in the house for the rest of her life. Overeynder said he is grateful for the housing and the opportunity to continue working for the city. “I want to stay here and finish my career and I still have to a lot to accomplish,” Overeynder said. “I’m glad I got the opportunity.”

Overeynder said his offer in Ukiah would have paid him 20 percent more, and the retirement benefits were a lot better than what Aspen offers. It was a hard decision, he added.”I feel like my life is here, but as you get close to retirement you think about your future,” he said. “I’m so thankful that my work is appreciated and I can contribute more to the city.”Overeynder told his direct supervisor, assistant city manager Randy Ready, earlier this year that he was looking for another job. But it wasn’t until the end of April that Overeynder realized that Barwick didn’t know. He told him at the beginning of May, Overeynder said.Barwick and City Attorney John Worcester said the City Council was justified in making a policy change in executive session.The city’s human resources director, Rebecca Doane, wasn’t aware of the policy change until after two anonymous tips came to her regarding the decision.”I was not involved,” she said. “I have no idea, and I wasn’t consulted prior to the decision being made, nor have I since been consulted.”

Barwick said he didn’t go out of his way to inform city staff of the policy change.Overeynder said he regrets that some of his employees might feel slighted because they didn’t know, but Barwick and other city officials asked him not to say anything. He also realizes that not all of his colleagues in City Hall will feel it’s fair.”They asked me not spread it around,” Overeynder said. “I understand that people might not be happy … “Mick Ireland, who had not yet been elected mayor at the time of the decision, said he thinks something of that magnitude should be subject to public review.”If you do a contract for personnel or land use, it should be put on the public agenda to be discussed,” he said. “I would be inclined to review the policy in public.”City Council members who approved the lifetime housing would not comment.Barwick defends the decision, saying Overeynder would not be easily replaceable. However, the public works director position was not advertised after Overeynder announced he was resigning. Barwick said he began finding ways to keep Overeynder within hours of his resignation.”Phil’s expertise on water policy and electric policy here and in the region as a whole is tremendous,” Barwick said. “His departure would have jeopardized a number of projects in the city.”

Barwick pointed to the recent passage of the Canary Initiative environmental plan, as well as the city’s stormwater plan as two projects where Overeynder is a crucial component. He acknowledged that there is not any subordinate under Overeynder who could succeed him.”We recognize that we do need a succession plan,” he said, adding that during Overeynder’s final years, employees will be groomed to take his position.City Hall isn’t alone in facing the challenge of retaining employees who are at their peak and are planning for retirement. Barwick and the City Council have discussed the issue in the past, and city staff is analyzing how the current policy could be changed.Ireland agreed that it’s necessary to do something to help aging employees in Aspen, with Overeynder being at the top of that list.”I’ve never agreed with the notion that when you are old you have to leave town,” Ireland said. “[Overeynder] would have been a huge loss. I can imagine the city would want to retain him.”Executive director Tom McCabe said the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority doesn’t oversee City Hall’s 45 housing units set aside specifically for employees, but he can understand why the City Council made the unprecedented move.”It’s their asset, and they can manage it as they choose,” McCabe said.

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