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Flagstaff City Council

The Flagstaff City Council. Pictured from left to right, Jim McCarthy, Austin Aslan, Mayor Coral Evans, Charlie Odegaard, Jamie Whelan, Vice-Mayor Adam Shimoni and Regina Salas.

The city of Flagstaff may be turning funds internally as the budget process for fiscal year 2019 through 2020 begins.

At the city budget retreat on Wednesday, Jan. 16, one of council’s goals was to address the problem of turnover on the part of city employees.

During the first day of the budget retreat, the issue of staff retention came up again and again, with nearly every department listing it as a challenge.

The issue seems to stem from a lack of pay. On average, the salaries of city staff are almost 4 percent lower than the market rate and it has been some time since many employees saw an increase in pay.

“The person with six to seven years of experience working at the city is making the same amount as employees who are starting work at the city yesterday,” said city manager Barbara Goodrich, who added that the issue is “absolutely affecting staff morale.”

The issue is leading staff from almost every department to leave, either for jobs in the private sector or with other public agencies and governments.

“[Staff] know they can go somewhere else with a lower rate of pay and within three years be making more than they would be working for the city of Flagstaff,” Goodrich said.

This has led to a trend in which the city has become a training ground for new civil servants. A staff member may be hired and trained at the city before leaving for another agency.

Todd Hanson, solid waste director for the city of Flagstaff, said when he goes to statewide conferences on the subject of landfill management and solid waste, he has spoken to directors and managers of trash programs who have thanked him for doing such a great job training employees that no longer work for the city.

And the story is no different at the municipal court, which often loses judicial staff and assistants, and at times even public defenders, to the county, which pays staff more.

At times, the city is even competing with itself for qualified employees, Goodrich said.

“Not only are we competing with others in our community and throughout the state, but we have two instances internally where we are cannibalizing our own employees,” Goodrich said. “One is from the aircraft rescue and firefighting [personnel] to the fire department because a firefighter makes more money than an ARFF personnel. Their duties are different, but the background ARFF personnel have make them prime candidates to go over to the fire department.”

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But the Flagstaff Fire Department is no different, said fire chief Mark Gaillard.

“I am watching experience walk out the door,” Gaillard told the council earlier this month. “Working with firefighters for a long time, they’re not the type to get fed up and leave. They're the type to get fed up and stay.”

But even so, they often lose firefighters to cities in the Valley like Peoria and Tempe, where pay is not only better but where the cost of living is lower.

To address the issue, councilmember Jamie Whelan suggested raises for the lowest paid employees at the city, but Goodrich wasn’t sure such a measure would fix the issue.

“We’re having a hard time at various levels retaining and attracting employees,” Goodrich said. Instead, she suggested a kind of merit-based pay increase and Mayor Coral Evans seemed to agree.

Similar measures may have been able to work in the past. Last year the council implemented a 3 percent merit-based pay increase for the police department. And police chief Dan Musselman told the council he has been approached by officers who have told him the increase in pay is the only reason they have been able to stay in Flagstaff.

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Adrian Skabelund can be reached at the office at askabelund@azdailysun.com, by phone at (928) 556-2261 or on Twitter @AdrianSkabelund.

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