As Jackson Hole’s cost of living climbs, Teton County commissioners decided Tuesday to invest more than $1.4 million in pay raises for all staffers instead of offering housing stipends.
“To me the goal is staff recruitment, staff retention, staff morale,” Commissioner Luther Propst said. “The best way to do that today is an all-staff increase.”
In 2015 commissioners agreed to a new compensation policy under which county salaries are calculated based on a comparison with those paid in a list of similar mountain communities, like Park City, Utah, or Aspen, Colorado, or at local entities like St. John’s Medical Center or Teton County School District No. 1. For each position that list is used to calculate the average market salary. Given Teton County’s high cost of living, commissioners decided to add an additional 5% to that market average.
A consultant’s study last month performed the comparison analysis anew and found that 43 percent of jobs in Teton County were paid below that standard.
As part of their annual budgeting process, commissioners voted to not only raise those salaries to 5% above market but go even further, raising all salaries to 7.5% above the market rate. The budgeted cost for that totals $1,414,588.
That means 99% of Teton County employees will see a pay raise this year, Human Resources Director Julianne Fries said.
“It’s a very tough, competitive wage in this community,” Commissioner Mark Barron said. “I think that’s an excellent way to address the issue.”
Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr asked commissioners to budget $1,489 per month in housing assistance for all his office’s employees, totaling $536,040 for the year. He said only four sworn deputies live inside Teton County, jeopardizing law enforcement’s response to emergencies when Teton Pass or the Snake River canyon close. In the past five years 35 employees have left the sheriff’s office within their first year because of the cost of living.
“I don’t think the county can afford not to do this,” Carr said last week.
But housing stipends, including Carr’s request, didn’t make it into the county’s budget.
After analyzing the numbers, commissioners chose the 7.5% above market salary approach rather than providing $500 monthly housing stipends to employees. Fries calculated the total cost for providing the stipends would have been $415,710 a year for just full-time emergency first responders, or $2,165,715 to all county staff.
Board of County Commissioners Chairwoman Natalia Macker said she was “not comfortable creating different classes of employees.”
Barron worried that a stipend system entailed too many unanswered questions, like whether employees currently living in income-restricted affordable housing would receive a stipend.
Propst said commissioners need more time to look into fairly applying a housing allowance. He believes the results of a countywide employee survey should be studied first.
Macker said investing more funding in housing stipends would likely mean either raising property tax rates, which is an unpalatable option, or investing less money in purchasing housing stock for employees — about $1 million for next year.
Macker said she didn’t want to reduce funding for buying employee housing in order to pay for housing stipends.
“I think that priority can’t go away,” Macker said. “We can’t trade this for that.”
Fries said a salary increase would incur retirement benefits, while a stipend would not.
A $500 monthly stipend would total $6,000 a year for each receiving employee. Under the approved budget, 99% of employees will receive at least a 2.5% increase in their salary, with some potentially seeing higher hikes, such as those workers whose salaries are already below 5% of the market rate.
According to numbers in the consultant’s report, under the new compensation policy a sheriff’s sergeant making a Teton County midpoint of $77,497 a year would see about $3,300 more a year with the 7.5% above market approach, compared with the $1,489 per month requested by Carr ($17,868 per year). The state of Wyoming gives its Teton County employees $1,489 per month in housing allowances.
Teton County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Lloyd Funk said he appreciates the county’s effort to study salaries to keep workers in Teton County.
“The pay increase they’re giving across the board is wonderful, and it will help everyone out,” Funk said.
But, he said, it’s still not the same as getting $500 to $1,500 per month in a housing allowance when it comes to retaining new staff in the county.
“The housing allowance would be a way to try to get some of those people to come back or get new employees to stay,” Funk said.
Though the salary boost will “definitely help,” Funk said, he’d like to see the county revisit the housing allowance concept, “because that’s really the only way we’re going to be able to start to see people buying or at least finding places to rent in Teton County to get our Fire/EMS and our law enforcement back in the community.”
Commissioners will take another look at the budget at their voucher meeting Monday, May 20 and plan to adopt the new compensation policy formally at an upcoming meeting.