April 5, 2006 - In Oro Valley town hall, low salaries appear to be hurting the town's ability to retain key staff members and function properly as a municipal government.
Some former staff members also cited low morale caused by disruptive internal politics and inadequate staffing levels as reasons why they left.
A salary survey released by the town last week showed that Oro Valley's salaries fell below nearly all other comparable Arizona towns across most staff positions.
The eight Arizona towns of comparable size chosen by Oro Valley for the survey were: Apache Junction, Avondale, Gilbert, Goodyear, Marana, Paradise Valley, Peoria and Surprise.
Staff positions that fell below average for salaries included town manager, town attorney, community development director, public works director, water utility director, human resources director, town clerk, economic development administrator, building administrator, planning and zoning administrator, senior civil engineer, civil engineer, senior plans examiner and plans examiner, according to the survey and a January 2006 salary and benefit survey prepared by the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.
Since January 2005, key staff members have resigned positions, including water utility director, human resources director, economic development administrator, building administrator, planning and zoning administrator, senior civil engineer and senior plans examiner, according to town records obtained by the EXPLORER.
It typically follows that areas of higher income have a higher cost of living and more expensive real estate. Yet despite offering lower salaries in most of these government staff positions, Oro Valley has a higher median household income of the towns surveyed except Paradise Valley and Gilbert, according to Census Bureau statistics.
Oro Valley pays its water utility director less than all other towns surveyed. Oro Valley's water utility director makes $63,696 a year, compared to the market average of $92,106, according to the League survey.
Civil engineers and senior civil engineers were also paid less in Oro Valley than all other towns surveyed. According to Oro Valley's salary survey, the annual pay scale for an Oro Valley civil engineer was $43,297 to $64,945, compared to the market average of $55,524 to $76,800. Senior civil engineers in Oro Valley made $50,211 to $75,316, compared to the market average $63,482 to $87,680, the survey stated.
The low pay in Oro Valley government goes right to the top. Oro Valley's town manager makes $123,180 a year, $23,459 less than the market average, according the League survey.
Out of about 300 employees working in Oro Valley town hall, 50 full-time staffers have left since January 2005.
Community Development Director Brent Sinclair said his department, which handles planning duties for the town, has been particularly affected by staff turnover.
"It's been really difficult to go beyond the day-to-day and get things done," Sinclair said. "We've had to replace some key employees, including two administrators. We're just trying to retain the employees we have."
Among the senior staff positions recently vacated in community development are senior planner, senior plans examiner and building administrator, Sinclair said.
"We have to be serious about making sure our pay and benefits are in line with the market," Sinclair said.
Since these staff members have resigned, his department has had difficulty fulfilling basic duties such as reviewing development projects, updating building codes and revising town ordinances, he said.
"I've been filling it as best I can, but that's what causes the gap. It's not just the time they're gone, but once you hire someone new, it takes time for them to acclimate into the organization," Sinclair said.
Oro Valley Councilman Terry Parish said the town's rapid growth has contributed to its lower than average government salaries.
"Revenue streams have not come along as quickly as we have needed them to stay competitive," Parish said. "Last year, we didn't have the funding in the budget. Now things are changing and we have more sales tax revenue than ever before. It's time to reinvest in our employees."
Oro Valley Mayor Paul Loomis said the low salary scales have had a direct effect on employee retention.
"We are both losing employees to higher paying jobs and having trouble hiring new employees," Loomis said.
Terry Vossler worked for six years in the community development department as building administrator before resigning on Dec. 31. He said inadequate pay has dogged the department by creating frequent turnover and low morale.
"The pay is a big issue. I tried for years to get adequate pay for my staff, and the council wouldn't approve it," Vossler said. "A lot of the town staff doesn't feel like the council supports them and doesn't care about them, and they feel like their pay isn't what it should be. There's a lot of people leaving, and there's a lot people looking hard to leave. When you don't treat people right, that's what happens."
Vossler said he will soon be moving to Oregon to work in county government there. Although the pay is actually a little less than he made in Oro Valley, Vossler said he could no longer tolerate the internal politics of town hall.
"The politics were terrible. The town council wouldn't take the time to learn or even care about their employees or what they do and what their job is," Vossler said. "They don't care if it's done right, they don't care how you do it, they just want it done. And my job was to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public."
Parish acknowledged that sometimes council members feel compelled to get involved in staff projects simply because they are deeply interested in town affairs.
"There is a temptation when you're on the council to want to micromanage, and one of the hard parts is knowing when to let employees and the town manager do their job," Parish said.
Vossler said he was aware his Oro Valley salary fell well below other municipalities.
"The city of Goodyear's building official made about $20,000 more than me. And that's the same size town with the same cost of living," Vossler said.
The relationship between Oro Valley town staff and town council might even be affecting its ability to recruit new employees, Vossler said.
"Oro Valley has a reputation statewide because of the horrible politics, with all the recalls in the past and the bickering," Vossler said.
Parish agreed that Oro Valley's unique political sphere is well known beyond the town limits.
"I believe it's true that our political reputation has affected our ability to recruit new employees as well as new businesses. We have many factions at work here, and that sometimes creates a lot of challenges," Parish said.
Christopher Kiel recently resigned as senior plans examiner in Oro Valley's community development department and now runs his own planning consultant business. Kiel said Oro Valley is going to have a tough time competing with the private sector for quality planners.
"A lot of consulting firms can offer significantly more money and the same benefits, and there is a huge demand out there for people with our skills. You're going to see people pulled away from local government unless they can jack up the rates, and that's hard to justify when you're spending taxpayer dollars," Kiel said.
The rising price of homes in Oro Valley will also make it difficult to lure in new recruits to work in the town government, Kiel said.
"Everyone will tell you money isn't everything, but it's a big part of bringing new people in. In Oro Valley, the price of homes are so high, you're going to have to live far away and you'll have to commute, and the traffic can get pretty hairy at rush hour," Kiel said. "I know if I was moving here now instead of four years ago, I couldn't afford the same house that I'm in because the price of houses jumped so high."
As the former human resources director for Oro Valley, Jeff Grant spent his time working on matters such as staff retention. Yet Grant said it was budget limitations that led him to seek out his current job of director of human resources for Pima County Superior Court.
"For the last couple years, I was frustrated with the staffing level in Human Resources. I thought that with the types of programs we needed to focus on, we could have used some additional help in HR, and it didn't look like that was going to materialize," Grant said. "I requested more staff fairly consistently the last three or four years I was there. I don't know exactly why it was denied."
Parish said staffers all over town government have been carrying the burden of chronic understaffing.
"We work our employees too hard because we're understaffed. Our government hasn't been able to grow as fast as the town, and as a result, I've seen some people having to sacrifice their family lives," Parish said.
Ironically, Grant said Oro Valley's tight budgeting might have prevented it from anticipating salary deficiencies.
"That's an area where additional staffing would have been helpful. In fact, in one of my budget proposals, I recommended the town look at acquiring a compensation person to keep tabs on what we needed to do from a market perspective," Grant said.
Based on his 14 years in Oro Valley government, Grant said losing 50 full-time employees since January 2005 was "a little on the high side."
Although understaffing may be a problem in Oro Valley government, Councilman Barry Gillaspie said the town council has to be very careful before creating new staff positions.
"The town council has had to hold the line on new positions. That's one area where you have to monitor costs. Although it's important to make sure we're adequately staffed, we've been working with tight budgets for the past few years," Gillaspie said.
Jeff Weir, Oro Valley's former economic development administrator, resigned his post in January and now holds a similar government position in Kingman. Weir said the private sector will always have a leg up on local governments in recruiting talent.
"We could all see what was happening in the planning organization, and also in public works. The skills are transferable to the private sector, and when the private sector is active, it will always pay better," Weir said.
Weir cites better pay and more opportunity as the reasons he left Oro Valley for Kingman.
"The increase in pay was significant enough to encourage me to move," Weir said.
Craig Civalier, town engineer, said that while his department can't offer engineers the same salaries they can earn in the private sector, working for the town government has other advantages.
"In Oro Valley, you don't have to work 14 hours a day like you do working for an engineering company. People get tired of working long hours and not having any personal time, and we attract those people from the private sector," Civalier said.
Yet Rod Lane, a former Oro Valley senior civil engineer, left the town after just two years for a job at the Arizona Department of Transportation.
"They might want to consider their pay, because the work for engineers isn't as good as it used to be," Lane said. "The salaries were a little low, at least in our department. The engineers are underpaid."
Lane said he only took the job in Oro Valley because of all the new construction taking place at the time and left when the interesting work petered out.
"When I went to Oro Valley, it wasn't for the money. Where else could I get to build four bridges?" Lane said.
Kathy Cuvelier, town clerk, said the town makes up for its below average salaries with an excellent benefits package. According to the Oro Valley Web site, the town picks up 100 percent of the costs for personal health care, preventive dental care and life insurance, and offers 75 percent college tuition reimbursement.
"I think the town tries to pay what it can. Pay increases aren't always the best way to improve morale," Cuvelier said.
Nevertheless, several positions in the community development department remain vacant. The town has not had a senior plans examiner since January, and Oro Valley has been without a senior planner since last September.
"Because Oro Valley has such high standards, we may take a bit longer to recruit and fill some positions," said Town Manager Chuck Sweet in an email.
On March 30, Oro Valley announced the hiring of a new human resources director, Sandra Abbey.
Loomis said the town council would study the new salary survey closely.
"We're certainly going to look at salaries as part of the budget cycle," Loomis said.
Gillaspie said the town government risks losing more valuable personnel until staff salaries are properly adjusted.
"I've advocated not sitting around waiting for human resources to do a study. The entire pay scale needs to be re-evaluated." Gillaspie said. "We need to do what we can for our employees."