Commentary: Retaining best employees requires city salaries remain competitive

Kyla Allen

Kyla Allen

I meet with and hear from many citizens as I perform my duties as a city council member and some of the questions I receive on occasion revolve around city salaries. I thought it might be helpful if I share with you the process for setting salaries.

First, it is important to recognize that the city provides “services.” Our employees do not produce any “products” or other items that can be sold. The services they provide can be very technical and require a high level of education, training and experience. For example, the paramedics who respond to a heart attack victim need to be experienced and trained to sustain life and have to recertify for Paramedic or Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) and Pediatric Life Support (PALS) every two years.

Our water service workers need to ensure that our water is safe and is tested to the highest standards required, and police officers need to be ready to handle any crime effectively and professionally. As citizens, we invest in our city employees so we can rely on them, without reservation, to protect our safety and quality of life.

Once we have selected the most qualified candidates, trained them and provided them with the best experience possible, we want to ensure we retain them so our investment does not leave to seek better opportunities elsewhere. We need to ensure that we provide a competitive compensation package that may not be the best, but is fair and consistent with both the public and private markets.

We live in a free market culture and if someone feels they can get more value for their talents elsewhere, they have that right and ability to pursue that better opportunity.

I recall there was a period in time when the City of Cottonwood was the “training ground” for other jurisdictions. Cottonwood trained staff, gave them the experience, and then the employee pursued better salaries at other communities. Our salaries were simply not competitive. Turnover in our police department occurred regularly. Considering that it takes two years to train a police officer, our citizens were losing a significant investment. I have direct experience with this loss of personnel at the Police Department as I have worked closely with them in the past.

To ensure we remain competitive in terms of our levels of employee compensation, the city contracts with a private firm that collects salary comparisons of our region with both public and private employers, where they can locate similar job descriptions. (They do not consider Phoenix area employers as that is not our market and it would be very difficult to compete, even though we do occasionally lose employees to the Phoenix area.) Based on the data collected, the firm makes recommendations to the City Council for consideration. The market is reviewed every few years to ensure compensation levels remain competitive and they may be adjusted, if revenues are available.

Every employer struggles with the need to stay competitive in the market, particularly when the economy is doing well. When the number of available job opportunities increase and workers are hard to find, the compensation market becomes much more competitive, which we are seeing in today’s work environment.

And I assure you, there is no automatic “6 percent” increase for employee salaries, despite what you may have read in the blogs. Employees are evaluated on an annual basis and can receive anywhere from a 0 percent salary increase to about a 5-percent increase (with the average being about 3.86 percent) depending solely on their skill and work performance. City employees also do not receive any type of “year-end-bonus” as many private employers provide. The only automatic pay increase I can recall employees ever receiving was a “cost of living” (COLA) increase which, this coming year, will make three years that a COLA has not been provided to our employees.

The important point is that you consider the surrounding market when you assess a city employee’s salary. Consider and compare what other entities are compensating for that same level of work or expertise. It is important we hire the most qualified people and pay them fairly to provide a competent workforce that keeps us safe and maintains the high quality of life we enjoy in the City of Cottonwood.

Kyla Allen is a member of the Cottonwood City Council.

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