Steamboat Springs City Council fails to pass 1st reading of budget after debate over employee pay raises

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Editor's note: This story was corrected to make clear that Sonja Macys, Cari Hermacinski and Walter Magill voted against spending $2.5 million next year on a new police station.

The city employees who traveled to Citizens Hall on Tuesday night hoping to learn the fate of the city’s proposed employee pay raise plan didn’t get an answer from a Steamboat Springs City Council still deeply divided over the proposal.

Instead, they watched the council wrestle extensively over the plan and then fail to pass a first reading of the city’s 2014 budget.

The impasse means the two new council members who are sworn in Nov. 12 will help pick back up the discussion.

Some current council members clearly were frustrated by the inaction Tuesday night.

“It bothers me that you don’t have the information you need to make this decision,” Sonja Macys told her fellow council members at the end of the long debate. “It seems like every time we get together, another piece of information is needed. We keep sending (city staff) to get more information (about employee compensation), and we’re still not moving forward.”

Macys and two other council members were ready to embrace the salary and benefit increases for the employees who city staff said are being underpaid compared with their counterparts in other cities.

A recent survey conducted by the city showed the salaries of several professional groups in the city were significantly off their market value.

The city wants to spend $738,000 in salary and benefit increases to rectify that.

“I think we’ve gone too long with not meeting market with our pay plan,” council member Scott Myller said at the end of the contentious debate. “I’m willing to vote for this thing and keep our finger on it and make Deb (Hinsvark) keep her finger on it, too.”

At his final meeting as a council member, Kevin Kaminski also was ready to approve the budget as is.

“People are our No. 1 asset,” he said. “Pay them for what the market value is.”

But at least four council members weren’t comfortable with the salary increases as presented.

Walter Magill said the price tag was too high.

Kenny Reisman wanted the city to develop a broader pay plan before committing the funds to raises.

Bart Kounovsky said he was frustrated the council didn’t have all of the information it needed in the public forum to make the decision.

And outgoing council member Cari Hermacinski suggested the city should develop a new policy that ties personnel costs to a certain proportion of the sales tax revenue or the general fund.

“We have a sustainable plan here, right here, right now,” City Manager Deb Hinsvark said in response to the council criticism.

She said the market wage increases were part of a pay plan that wouldn’t guarantee any raises in future years but instead would put in place salary ranges based on what government employees are making in other cities comparable to Steamboat.

She added the proposal was in line with the fiscal policies the council adopted this year that call for the city to budget 95 percent of the sales tax revenue and have the rest go into reserves.

Council’s debate about the plan is a clash between some members who think it is time to better compensate employees who have sustained years of furloughs and frozen salaries and other members who value those employees but think the raises need to be weighed against other factors such as the fact the economy still is in recovery mode and city employees have generous paid time off plans.

The debate turned sour early when Reisman seemed surprised that there were no proposed changes to the plan even after Hinsvark in recent weeks met with several council members individually for feedback.

“Everyone had some different ideas,” Hinsvark said. “As far as the compensation plan itself, I didn’t get any direction from this council to make any changes.”

Hermacinski said she was concerned about Hinsvark’s individual meetings with the council members about the plan.

She also was critical of the fact that some new information the council had requested on employee compensation, including more specifics on the cost of turnover and the scope of paid time off plans, was given to the council prior to Tuesday’s meeting but not to the public.

Hinsvark apologized for not having the information included in Tuesday’s agenda packet.

Tuesday night was the second time in two years this council has wrangled over employee pay raises.

Last year, the body voted down a separate set of proposed pay raises for employees after it determined the raises might not be financially sustainable.

The compensation plan wasn’t the only thing holding up the budget Tuesday.

Council members Macys, Hermacinski and Magill voted against spending $2.5 million next year on a new police station.

Their motion did not pass.

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10

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Comments

Scott Wedel 5 months, 3 weeks ago

The statements that the public should be "rewarding" government employees is offensive to many. Many government employees are better paid than so many citizens. The response to most job offerings for most job openings is so strong that it is abundantly clear that the general public would gladly take the jobs of any disgruntled city staffers.

There does appear to be some jobs related to heavy equipment such as bus drivers where qualified locals are not so interested in working for the city because comparable PRIVATE SECTOR jobs pay well and more pay may be needed to fill positions.

But city administrative jobs are better than almost any comparable private market office job. Who was the last planner that left to work for a developer? What city staffers are leaving to administer real estate offices or property management companies?

Retirements or being fired for misconduct is not the sort of turnover that would be reduced by pay raises.

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John St Pierre 5 months, 3 weeks ago

Scott If there is a gap in pay... it is the part time or seasonal employee's who receive no benefits and much lesser pay....
When this "pay review" was put together, it should be the whole cost or value of what full time employees actually get.. not just their weekly salary numbers. Saying your making 45K a year as equipment operator without including what the city pays in free health insurance, paid days off etc is a very misleading. There are very very few private sector jobs in this area that provide the type of package that the city as an employer does....

If there is a "turnover" problem than it should be made public what positions those are and why.... I would suspect it is in finding seasonal employee's .... that the issue is not about turnover but the fact that seasonal staff do the same work usually under worse working conditions but make 25% less with none of the full time benefits.

Just how many positions is the city trying to fill and why are those positions vacant in the 1st place???? Pilot do some reporting please!! Once again we have 2 governments in this town... the elected and the city staff... who's is leading who????

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Scott Wedel 5 months, 3 weeks ago

"Hermacinski said she was concerned about Hinsvark’s individual meetings with the council members about the plan."

The paper would seem to have a strong case that those meetings were covered by Colorado's open meetings law and demand the release of any meeting materials. The individual meetings would appear to have been a scheme to meet with the entire city council on an issue of public importance without overtly triggering the open meetings law.

But since it was an intentional plan to discuss the issue with the entire city council then it almost certainly triggers the open meeting requirements. Simply holding multiple smaller meetings on one topic has been recognized by Colorado courts as being the equivalent of holding a larger meeting on the topic and thus triggers the open meeting disclosures.

It is my interpretation of the court cases of similar circumstances that holding that sort of multiple meetings is such an obvious violation that the government agency/board being sued to release meeting materials have not tried to argue the individual meetings were exempt from COMA. This is basically the "oops, busted" category of COMA cases.

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John Fielding 5 months, 3 weeks ago

There is no doubt the reported meetings violate the "sequential meeting" provision all city council and commissioners are instructed to not engage in under penalty of law. I cannot believe that the City manager has not also been so advised. If so this is a deliberate violation of that law, and cannot be considered a trivial offense. I do not believe any consequence less than termination could be appropriate. When it is combined with the concurrent failure to provide information to the public as required, it is compounded and could indicate an attempt to improperly influence a decision by council.

This would not be the first time she changed employment for an allegedly inappropriate action. As financial officer in Kansas City she left her position after the city manager thought she might be the source of leaked information regarding an issue on which they did not agree.

http://midwestdemocracy.com/blogs/entries/deb-hinsvark-kansas-citys-chief-financial-officer-is-out/

There are also numerous other complaints and concerns raised by citizens and council.

http://www.steamboattoday.com/news/2013/aug/29/rob-douglas-s-not-way-its-done/

http://www.steamboattoday.com/news/2013/sep/12/rob-douglas-city-adds-insult-injury/

http://www.steamboattoday.com/news/2013/oct/17/rob-douglas-stormy-stormwater-success/

This is altogether far less than what led to the resignation of her predecessor Jon Roberts. Her actions put the city at risk of legal actions. It is past time for the Council to require her resignation.

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John Fielding 5 months, 3 weeks ago

Regarding the other topic mentioned in the article, the $2,5 million proposed for the police station is problematic. It appears to be an appropriation to begin building a fund for some project not yet fully identified. While there is wide agreement that some improvements need to be made for the police offices, there is certainly not any broad based support for a particular solution. Those funds must not be committed in advance of a decision, and that decision should be brought before the voters for approval unless it is smaller in scope than this amount indicates.

This is more money for a single discretionary project than the council should be allowed to spend without such taxpayer approval, and it is probably only the down payment. A few more such appropriations and council could spend ten million without specific approval. That is more authority than I believe was ever intended for them. Kudos to the majority on that vote in holding the line.

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Scott Wedel 5 months, 3 weeks ago

John,

I don't know if you saw my post on the proposed new police station. We can make it 900 sq ft smaller if we don't give the police chief a nearly 1100 sq ft suite including personal bathroom. It doesn't need a large public meeting room since the police dept can use Centennial Hall for public meetings. Nor does it need a dedicated briefing room and a dedicated conference room. Being able to turn 5 chairs around saves another few hundred sq ft. Nor does it need a big fancy lobby - could make it just like the Sheriff's dept lobby.

And probably the biggest cost savings - it is possible to build a smaller HQ building that has to conform to the stricter essential building codes and an accessory building for storage and such to just the normal building codes. That two building method is fairly common to save money.

As for the serial meetings to avoid COMA - the city council members and the city manager should do the correct thing and release all materials and notes from those meetings. As of now, city council member and the city manager have participated in a conspiracy to hold meetings in secret to discuss the issue of staff pay raises. The people that should lose their jobs first are the city council members that have violated the public trust and the law by participating in secret meetings to discuss a major issue facing city government.

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John St Pierre 5 months, 3 weeks ago

Scott... I cannot seem to find the Sauna, Hot Tub and swimming pool in the report......considering all the bells and whistle this momument has & they are planning... I would think they would need this to reduce their stress from all the walking they have to do in this Taj Mahal

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John Fielding 5 months, 3 weeks ago

Scott, I did see the post you refer to, and I thank you for the time you spent analyzing it and reporting on it. I think you might agree that unless they have the price tag down to less than $2.5 mil and that plan has been made public and received some substantial support, there was no justification for making that budget appropriation for it.

Regarding the apparent deliberate attempt to evade the COMA, the individual council members may each have had the impression that they were the only one that was consulted, hence no violation would have occurred. If memory serves from my days in city service it was sequential meetings with three or more by a citizen, or by one official with two other officials that would have been a violation. But it would have behooved any of the council to have asked, "who else are you talking to about this", knowing that a potential violation was possible, even likely.

The point remains, the managers actions were certainly disgraceful, possibly criminal, and drew the council members in to the impropriety. The city employees she is supposedly championing by her attempts to influence the pay issue are probably among the most distressed by her besmirching the character of the city government.

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Scott Wedel 5 months, 3 weeks ago

John,

Well, it definitely is not criminal, but a civil offense. City needs to release to the public any meeting materials including any notes.

The really disturbing part is how the city manager presumably used these meetings to persuade city council members in private and could use feedback to improve public arguments or craft changes in secret. That the hard issues of negotiation and compromise could take in secret for the city council to rubber stamp in the public meeting.

Fortunately, the city council did not pass it. But much like the police station, the proper process for city decision making has been corrupted

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Mark Ruckman 5 months, 3 weeks ago

Question, for those who take a strong interest in the efforts of the city council and banter about it online, how often do you attend the council meetings? If or when you attend, do you take the time to stand up at the public comment portion to share your views?

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John St Pierre 5 months, 2 weeks ago

perhaps they should be scheduled in the evening when people can attend instead their 5:30 time...

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John Fielding 5 months, 3 weeks ago

Thank you Pilot for the clarification, I had the mistaken impression that the budget appropriation for the police station had been defeated.

Mark, there have been times when I attended the council meetings and spoke out regularly. Often there were just one or two items of special concern to me, but timing arrival for a particular item is difficult, so as I listened to and read the materials for other discussions, I often gave voice to my opinion. While I strove to make my 3 minute presentations germane, judicious, and gracious, I began to recognize annoyance in the body language of council members. Once there was even a comment to the effect of "are you going to say something about everything". The more frequent commentator, self proclaimed gadfly Bill Jameson, took no pains toward the ends of conciliation yet was better received. In matters where I made particularly diligent efforts I was faulted by council for wasting their time and hijacking the process.

I now choose to make my assertions in this forum, having decided that I would only return to the council meetings as a member. There is a much wider and more receptive audience here, including many council and staff members. There is potentially a snowball effect from commenting here, that can make a bigger difference that one quick comment at the meeting. Having now stepped aside in the council race (at least for this term), I am contemplating making an offer to write a weekly column for the print edition of this publication if the family situation stabilizes sufficiently to allow that effort.

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John Fielding 5 months, 3 weeks ago

The Press is potentially more powerful than the politicians. It is a pity that in this town it is not utilized more diligently. At least with the advent of the internet every concerned citizen can now be widely heard.

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Pat West 5 months, 3 weeks ago

John, I think you over estimate the reach of this online forum.

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John Fielding 5 months, 3 weeks ago

That may be so, but I know the effect of attending and commenting at council meetings is negligible.

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John Fielding 5 months, 2 weeks ago

Well Pat, it reached you, that's a start.

I am approached dozens of times each year by people reacting to my comments here, encouraged to keep posting, and told "I always read them but I never post anything" Several of these comments have come from City employees who fear reprisals if they should speak out.

The forum draws hundreds of regular readers. In a town this size that is considerable. And there is no doubt that a significant number of them are what would be called the well informed, regular voter, often holding positions of influence in the community.

That is a pretty good audience.

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Scott Wedel 5 months, 3 weeks ago

Saying something during public comment at city council meetings feels like a waste of effort.

They just say "thank you, anyone else". They do not respond to direct questions on relevant issues. If a city council member has a concern then they can bring it up, city staff will respond and the city council may spend a few minutes discussing it.

But if a member of the public states a concern during public comment then it is city policy, stated to me by two city council members, to not respond or debate anything mentioned in public comment.

I do fairly often go the county commissioner meetings and they are wonderful. They ask you to literally sit at the table with them and they will discuss the issue with you for a few minutes. They are not allowed to discuss some issues such as accusations of zoning violations since that is consider quasi-judicial where they could later be acting as judges and thus must take care to be fair to both sides.

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Scott Wedel 5 months, 3 weeks ago

I have been told by several city council members that they personally read the online forums.

So it is probably true that commenting on the forums is more effective that going to a city council meeting and saying something during public comment.

Having seen the sort of written letters submitted to the city council that ask direct specific questions, sometimes with serious credible analysis, that are never discussed or answered by the city council or city staff then it is pretty clear that city staff and the city council do not want to be bothered by the public.

A local general contractor submitted a letter asking a series of questions on the projected construction costs of the proposed police station. That was not discussed or answered by city staff or the city council.

One city council member expressed frustrations to me at this policy, but it is apparently what was suggested by city staff and accepted by most of the city council.

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