Teton County Administration Building

Department heads have asked Teton County to take a new approach to setting employee salaries to better reflect the cost of living in Jackson Hole.

Teton County/Jackson Parks and Recreation Director Steve Ashworth, Public Works Director Heather Overholser, Jackson Hole Fire/EMS Chief Brady Hansen and four others — all of the county department directors except for the interim human resources director — outlined in an October letter a proposal to tie wages to cost of living.

“This solution is based on current data, addresses the very high cost of living in Teton County, and is objective and simple,” they wrote. “We are not recommending that you create a new program or compensation package. We are recommending that you adjust your current policy to reflect the realities of where we live.”

But county commissioners are moving in a different direction that incorporates part of what the directors want. Some see it as a positive move while others remain concerned.

“What I heard is that the commissioners want to try to come up with a compensation package that reaches the most number of employees,” Director of Public Works Heather Overholser told the News&Guide on Tuesday. “I’m pleased with the direction it’s going.”

But others remain concerned.

Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr said that with the hiring issues the county faces and incoming competition from big retailers like REI, Black Diamond and Target, he’s worried about taking too long to find a way to boost county pay. He doesn’t want to “discuss this thing to death.”

“We need something to happen sooner rather than later,” Carr said.

Trying to set competitive pay in the past, Teton County has hired consultants to study a pool of comparable public and private employers and determine the “market” wage for positions ranging from office administrators to county attorneys. Then it adds 7.5%, looking to make county pay competitive. That’s what the county calls a “market-plus-7.5%” policy. The 7.5% increase is not pegged to a specific metric but rather a balance between, as a consultant put it, what the county “should pay” and “can pay.”

“We arrived at seven and a half percent I don’t want to say arbitrarily, because it wasn’t arbitrary,” Kay Tilzer of Public Sector Personnel Consultants told commissioners Monday. “We started off with ‘What should we be paying?’ And then we backed into ‘What can we pay?’ and we landed on ‘market-plus-7.5%.’”

The department directors’ proposal, by contrast, would have tied wage increases to a cost-of-living index that calculates what an average person pays for food, housing, energy and the like — and then benchmark Teton County’s performance against the cost of living facing employers the county is considering in its “market” pool.

It would have amounted to a “market-plus-19.25%” policy.

“The directors made a recommendation based on a common metric,” Overholser said. “Although we know it would be a heavy lift, we felt good about the methodology because it’s based on where Teton County falls in terms of the cost-of-living index compared to the other communities that they’re looking at.”

Carr commended department directors’ proposal and previously said he hopes “it doesn’t get swept under the carpet.”

“People aren’t compensated enough to live in Teton County,” Carr said. “I think that’s what the directors really nailed on the head: We’ve got to come out with ‘What’s a living wage?’”

Commissioners, meanwhile, are interested in a new approach to adjusting salaries that takes cost of living into account but with a different methodology.

An adjustment under the typical “market-plus-7.5%” policy and the new option from consultants that caught commissioners’ ear would be more or less equivalent in terms of cost and the number of employees impacted: roughly $1.4 million, with over 80% of the county’s workforce getting some kind of raise.

The rough equivalency is part of why commissioners were interested in the new approach, though they want to consider adding a few percentage points to the salaries that result, hoping the market adjustment could benefit more employees.

“It is essentially abandoning the prior philosophy and adopting a new philosophy and then adding a percentage on top of that,” Commission Chairwoman Natalia D. Macker said Monday.

The department directors’ “market-plus-19.25%” approach, by contrast, would cost the county up to $4.3 million and see over 99% of the county’s workforce get a raise.

Treasurer Katie Smits told the News&Guide she thinks the direction commissioners are exploring would bring the county in line with “today’s” wages.

But she wondered whether it would set the government ahead of the curve, and said she still has questions about how it would work.

“There’s more questions than there are answers,” she said.

Commissioners have more questions too and didn’t make a decision Monday.

Instead, they’re waiting for more information from consultants before continuing the conversation.

Contact Billy Arnold at 732-7063 or barnold@jhnewsandguide.com.

Teton County Reporter

Billy Arnold has covered government and policy since January 2020, sitting through hours of Teton County meetings so readers don't have to. He moonlights as a ski reporter, helps with pandemic coverage and sneaks away to climb when he can.

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