Difficulties in recruiting and retaining employees are posing problems for some Missoula city departments, but the vacancies also are creating savings opportunities.
In a 2½-hour review of various departments’ fiscal year 2019 budgets this week, directors pointed out the highlights of their operations during the past few months, as well as areas they would like to improve.
At the end of the presentations, Councilor Heather Harp said what struck her were the impacts the vacancies are having on city-provided services and staff, and she questioned whether the city is paying enough to keep people employed.
“That affects the level of service we provide our customers. We all get those emails and phone calls of ‘I don’t get this, I don’t get that and I’m a taxpayer,’” Harp said. “At some point we have to do anything we can to ensure we are paying people what they are worth.
“I’m not sure if there’s a simple answer, but it’s something that could be addressed as we continue through the budget process.”
Mike Haynes, who oversees the Development Services Department — mainly the building, engineering, planning, permits, and land use divisions — said retirements and the inability to recruit people, due in part to the high costs of living in Missoula, is slowing down their ability to review plans and process permits.
“It’s proving extremely difficult to hire professional staff who are typically coming from out of state,” Haynes said. “For planner positions, we had five or six people who applied for a job, who wanted to live and work here, but ultimately they turned down the job. With the salaries we are paying and the cost of living in Missoula, they’re finding it hard to live here economically.”
Fire Chief Jeff Brandt said his department is saving money as older employees retire, younger ones move up the chain of command and rookies fill the lower-level positions. But with staff taking time off due to the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) — he estimated they have had seven babies each year — and injuries incurred performing a high-risk job, it’s difficult to juggle comp time and vacations.
“We are meeting our minimum standards,” Brandt said. “We could use some more folks.”
Police Chief Mike Brady said he is authorized to have 109 sworn officers, which is three more positions than last year, but still has five vacancies in his department. He also has five people who are in various training programs, are injured or out due to FMLA matters, so the actual number of assigned officers is 99.
He added that depending on their experience, it can take up to seven months from the time an officer is hired to when they’re out on their own on the street.
Brady also mentioned that the annexation of the area near the Missoula International Airport has increased calls for service to his department, estimating they’re on track to reach 1,300, which is up from the 1,000 calls he had anticipated.
“When you take that into consideration, we’re managing our budget well,” Brady said.
In the Public Works Department, Director Jeremy Keene said doing a lot with a little is both a great achievement and a great challenge. For example, most of the streets in Missoula are between 30 and 50 years old, although the life span for asphalt is closer to 20 years.
“It’s been a tough winter, with a lot of freeze and thaw, so the streets that had cracks are really starting to break up,” Keene said. He added that the heavy snows and cold temperatures also took their toll on the plows, with drivers barely wrapping up work on the primary routes before another snowfall hit. That forced them to redo the primary routes, and they weren’t able to get to the residential areas as often as they liked.
“We got a lot of complaints,” he said.
Next year, Keene is going to try to have a handful of contractors on call who may be able to help plow the residential streets more quickly. Keene also is working on a pavement study to record which streets are more deteriorated than others, and begin a replacement plan.
Steve Johnson, who heads up Central Services Department — which includes everything from finance and human resources to facility maintenance and information technology — said hiring is one of the downsides of a strong economy.
“Compensation helps bring people in, as do good benefits, and family-friendly packages help keep them in the organization,” Johnson said. “We are faced with stiff competition in the labor department and I could give you example after example of the impacts that’s had on us.
“But the turnover gives us great chances for filling those spots.”