Follow the money | AspenTimes.com

Follow the money

Carolyn Sackariason Aspen Times Weekly
Paul Conrad Aspen Times Weekly
ALL |

Local governments are nearly even with other Colorado public agencies in how much they pay their employees, but they fall short when compared to the private sector.And with the high cost of living and lack of affordable housing in the Roaring Fork Valley, city and county officials find it difficult to attract and retain quality employees.The city of Aspens turnover rate in 2007 was 13 percent while Pitkin Countys was 24 percent, according to government officials.Brian Pettet, Pitkin Countys public works director, recently said his department has been advertising for a mechanic for more than a year. An entry-level mechanic for Pitkin County pays a minimum of $42,800 a year, or $20.58 an hour, not including benefits, according to the countys general pay plan. At the top pay range with several years of tenure, a mechanic can make up to $29.86 an hour, or $62,100 a year.Geographically, Pitkin County is much larger than Aspen, but city government is able to pay its employees more than the county. With the lions share of Aspens developed property and economic activity, the city has a larger tax base and more revenue-generating ability, but both organizations have medium tenure rates seven and a half years in City Hall and nine years in the county, based on comparisons with other governments in the state, officials said. However, there are dozens of longtime employees who benefit from high pay rates and healthy retirement funds built up during decades of employment.We have amazing tenures, said County Manager Hilary Fletcher, who started as a secretary in Pitkin County government more than 20 years ago. The two governments are huge contributors to the local economy by virtue of how many people they employ about 250 in Pitkin County. The city of Aspen employs nearly 300 people year-round and between 425 and 450 in the summer. Nationwide, government is a massive industry, equating to about $2 trillion in revenue and expenses, according to City Manager Steve Barwick.

Yet top local government officials admit their employees are mostly underpaid.Only recently has Pitkin County raised salaries to better reflect the local cost of living. Last year the county hired compensation consultant Victoria McGrath to determine if the organization was paying its employees fairly. Following her report, Pitkin County immediately adjusted the salaries of 181 employees, costing the government $90,000, Fletcher said.In January, Pitkin County made a 3 percent across-the-board adjustment, using a one-time cost savings that the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners approved, Fletcher said. That market adjustment cost $311,270.That has made us more competitive, Fletcher said, still acknowledging that city employees make more than their counterparts in the county.Neither Pitkin County nor the city of Aspen have annual cost of living adjustments. However, the city of Aspen gives its employees annual pay raises that average 5.6 percent, but workers are eligible for up to 8 percent, according to Rebecca Doane, City Halls human resources director.Pitkin County budgets for 4 percent annual pay raises, but averages about 3.6 percent based on employees performance, Fletcher said. The city of Aspen also gives up to $1,800 in annual performance-based bonuses. More benefits are offered at the city government as well.

Fletcher said the county is limited by the state constitution in how it can generate revenue and therefore doesnt have as much money to pay its people. With an overall budget of $77 million, Pitkin County spends $20,403,133 of it on employee salaries, officials said.It would be a great day when we can compensate people for their work but were not there yet, she said. We are not able to financially absorb [cost of living adjustments] every year … [employees] are struggling.By comparison, the city of Aspens overall budget is $84,386,150 and $16,339,510 is spent on labor, according to Finance Director Don Taylor.The lowest-paying position in Pitkin County is a library assistant at $13.94 an hour, which doesnt include benefits. In the city of Aspen, the lowest-paying positions are a Wheeler Box Office representative and a lifeguard, which both get $14.91 an hour, without benefits, according to the governments annual compensation plans.While Pitkin County generally pays its employees less than the city, its elected officials make far more than Aspen City Council members. Pitkin County commissioners make $72,000 a year. The mayor of Aspen pulls in $27,900 a year and council members make $20,400. Elected officials in both governments also are eligible for health insurance, or the cash equivalent.

Managers of both governments say its the organizational culture that keeps people from quitting. The selling point in attracting employees is how they are managed.Its not all about money, Fletcher said. Its about being valued, appreciated and making a difference.

The environment is crucial, she added. My leadership style and philosophy is to provide the most supportive environment so each person is productive.Janice Vos Caudill, Pitkin Countys clerk and recorder, was an assistant to the city manager until 2005, when she was appointed to her current position. She was elected a year later. She left city government for more money, more responsibility and to better use her skills.It was a promotion, she said, adding she did enjoy the annual bonuses at City Hall but likes the family environment and flexible work schedules at the county. Its different leadership styles between the two and Hilary promotes a family environment and a lifestyle environment … you have to because we cant compete with what the city offers.When Fletcher was promoted to county manager in 2001, she sensed a need for change in the organization. She added that she had seen seven county managers come and go, and none of them were able to make systematic changes throughout the entire organization.Pitkin County in 2003 became a pilot organization to study the organizational culture, which was done by New Zealand-based consulting firm Innes Strategy. It focused on how the agency performed then and how it should in the future.My goal was to see where the employees wanted to go and let them own it, Fletcher said. Weve got smart people working here and they know better than I do sometimes.Another recent employee survey was done to get a brain map of the individuals, Fletcher said. I didnt want to the turn ship around and find out that no one was following, she said, adding the organization is moving from a reactive mode to a proactive one. And that is about retention and recruitment.Working for a proactive government agency was key for Laura Laubhan, who recently became human resources manager for Pitkin County.That was an attractive piece for me, she said. Twenty-plus county employees from all levels are now part of whats called a cultural action team driving more than 40 initiatives that arose out of the employee survey. Eighty-six percent of the respondents said they were proud to work for Pitkin County, but the results pointed to possible problems. A majority of employees agree that morale could be better; that there is a disconnect between management and front-line employees; they cant effectively make changes in their departments and its difficult to communicate with other departments, according to the survey results.Its not all peaches and cream, Fletcher said. There is room for improvement.

One employee who recently worked for both governments in the information technology department said it was more difficult to get something done in Pitkin County than it was in City Hall.To get anything done [in the county], everyone has to approve it, the employee said, asking to remain anonymous. In the city, we have a get things done approach.That approach has been 15 years in the making, said City Manager Barwick. You can never pay people enough, he said. You try to create an organization where they have input and control. When Barwick arrived as an assistant city manager in 1993, he said then-City Manager Amy Margerum wanted to move away from the traditional government hierarchy that is still in place in most city, county, state and federal organizations.At the time, there were hundreds of complaints from employees who felt they couldnt make any decisions or create any change in their departments. Secretly written newsletters would get posted by employees in the middle of the night on bulletin boards throughout City Hall blasting managers, Barwick recalled. The City Council would spend an inordinate amount of time sifting through the budget, scrutinizing every line item. Department heads didnt have the power to make small decisions, and employees could never make any more money than the maximum pay rate for their position, leaving little incentive to work smarter or harder.So work began on making Aspen city government function more like a business, with many smaller ones within the organization serving as individual departments. The fundamental changes also made Aspen government accountable for its successes and failures, with performance-based pay for employees.The best way to define success is from the outside looking in, Barwick said, adding that annual citizen satisfaction surveys are used to determine employees goals. Workers are now eligible for up to $1,800 in bonuses if they meet annual goals. Its our effort to emulate private sector profit sharing.The pay-out comes in December, right before the holidays.People pay attention to this, Barwick said, adding part of the outcome measures include living up to environmental stewardship and evaluations by co-workers on attitudes and work ethics. We want to make sure they are walking the talk.In the finance and budget systems within City Hall, controls on each department were lifted. A quarter of employees have purchase cards so they can buy what they need without getting permission. Gone are the days of a mechanic needing a bolt and having to ask a higher-up to go buy it for them.Its based on the notion that we can trust people, Barwick said. This allows people to fix problems and find solutions.In the traditional system, department heads in City Hall also had to spend all of the money budgeted by the end of the year or they would lose it, leaving no incentive to save money.Now, savings are carried forward and each department gets 50 percent back to spend however it pleases. Barwick said more than $2 million has been saved.Such moves have helped keep longtime employees like Kathryn Koch at City Hall. City Clerk Koch has worked for the city for 37 years and has no regrets. The only downside to the job is long hours during elections and City Council meetings.I love my job, Koch said, adding that moving to the county like other co-workers have in the past has never been an option. I have never considered moving across the street.csack@aspentimes.com


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