Critics allege too many ‘high-paid Chiefs’
~ by Beth Dodd ~
During Woodland Park’s contentious budget debates late last year, the salaries of city employees were called into question by key elected leaders. After hours of discussion, only a 1.9 percent pay increase was approved in the final 2017 budget for city workers. But even with this decision, many questions still persist such as: “Are the current city salaries a good use of our local tax dollars? How are things like this decided?
The escalating salaries of certain administrators, and even the development of new departments, have commanded much discussion among local residents. Some critics have referred to the current allotment of government dollars for salaries as out of control and a by-product of a scenario with “too many high-paid Chiefs.” City officials, though, strongly disagree and have adamantly defended the current salaries of key administrators and WP employees.
According to Woodland Park City Manager, David Buttery, the city bases its pay rates on a detailed comparison with the pay in other communities. Every three years an in-depth wage comparison called the Compensation Study Salary Survey is conducted for the city by Arthur J. Gallagher, a U. S. based global insurance brokerage and risk management services firm. In the years between major surveys, a mini-survey and update is done. Data is collected about the pay in similar towns like Gunnison, Montrose, and Salida as well as in competing neighboring communities like Cripple Creek, Manitou Springs, and Colorado Springs. These communities and others voluntarily participate in a salary survey for this purpose.
The job descriptions for city employees include a salary range that sets minimum and maximum pay for that position. Woodland Park uses a pay grade system, similar to the federal government’s GS system. Pay grades go from 0 to 14, although only grades 4 through 14 are in use. For example, an entry level city employee like an administrative assistant is a grade 5, earning $33,607 to $45,369 per year, while most of the department heads are grade 14, earning $74,488 to $111,730 per year.
So how does all this impact how our tax dollars are spent on city salaries?
The 2016 Compensation Study Salary Survey showed that Woodland Park employees were being paid slightly less than other communities, and that a salary increase would keep their pay on par with other communities in the state. So in the initial 2017 draft budget the city manager asked for a 3 percent average increase in salaries. Out of that 3 percent, 1.9 percent was to be used for salary increases and 1.1 percent was to be used for a merit based pay-for-performance system that the city has long used.
As a way to trim the budget and build up the general fund, the city agreed to drop the 1.1 percent for pay for performance bonuses. They substituted one to three paid days off to reward employees who exceed expectations. This resulted in an overall savings of $52,500 in the 2017 budget and increased the general fund by $41,200.
That savings was important, as the city was struggling with a record low fund balance due to the fact that it has embarked on several huge capital projects. Still, some leaders viewed the current city salary levels, especially those of key managers and administrators, with much skepticism.
Too Many Chiefs
In a letter to The Mountain Jackpot late last year, Councilman Val Carr strongly criticized pay levels in Woodland Park. In his letter, he described government employee compensation at the federal and local levels as “overvalued” and “unjustified.” He assumes that public sector employees are compensated at a greater rate than private sector employees. He also said that “Woodland Park’s administration strives to compensate its public sector employees based on a survey of Denver, Boulder, Greeley, and Fort Collins benefits paid.
His letter attracted much attention, especially with a local business landscape filled with many small service-oriented businesses with limited capital. Do the facts support his statements? This is a question debated by many veteran government employees.
Another factor in the Compensation Study Salary Study is the Denver-Boulder-Greeley Consumer Price Index. The Consumer Price Index Unit or CPIU is the officially recognized inflation rate for Colorado. According to Buttery, this is a minor component of the salary study and has little bearing on pay levels in Woodland Park. The main use of the CPIU by the city is to plan their budget for consumable goods like sand and salt for winter road maintenance. It is the best way to guess how prices may change from year to year.
The CPIU is not used to set salaries in Woodland Park, and the 16 municipalities used in the compensation study do not include Denver, Boulder, Greeley, or Fort Collins. The city also uses information from a salary survey produced by the Colorado Municipal League, which represents 264 communities in Colorado.
In regards to whether or not government employees are overpaid or underpaid, Buttery hesitated to comment. “Most of our people do what they do because they like the work. I believe they are fairly paid. It is difficult to compare most public sector jobs to private sector jobs. It’s hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison,” he said. Buttery praised the city’s 82 full time and 21 part-time and seasonal employees, citing their passion and caring for the community. He gave the example of the public works employees who were out repairing water main leaks on Christmas morning – the last three years in a row. “It’s an issue of trust,” Buttery said. “They (the city employees) trust me to give them the right tools and equipment to get their jobs done, and to pay them fairly. It’s a two-way street. We trust them to get the work done. The community trusts us to be good stewards of their hard-earned tax dollars. Trust goes in all directions. We want the community to trust us. I believe the vast majority of people do. It’s a daily commitment to maintain that trust.”
On the subject of city salaries, Carr commented, “I think key questions remain regarding using the proper model for our mountain-western town, and the over-elevated categorization of the level of certain employees to a higher category of responsibility and duties than they would customarily be categorized. (I mean we have DIRECTORS who have 1-3 workers under them!) These two things make for the potential of over-inflated salaries for our town workers, but a thorough study would be required by someone without a vested interest, including any city or public employee.”
What Do We Pay Them? Examples of Woodland Park Pay Grades
Grade 4 $30,550 to $41,242 Public Works Maintenance Worker I
Grade 6 $36,966 to $49,905 Finance Technician
Grade 8 $44,730 to $60,385 Assistant Chief Wastewater Plant Operator
Deputy City Clerk
Grade 10 $54,122 to $73,066 Parks & Recreation Director
Grade 12 $61,560 to $92,339 Deputy Police Chief
Grade 14 $74,488 to $111,730 Public Works Director