A yearslong staffing shortage across Teton County departments is already slowing building schedules and has threatened to close the Rec Center one day a week.
Staffing came up when commissioners were asked Tuesday if they would lengthen some deadlines for planning and building staff, who say they are stretched too thin to meet current deadlines.
Commissioner Mark Barron brought up a human resources report from November 2021 that listed planning department vacancies at seven, the same number they are now.
“So you really made no progress,” he said. “Is this board the reason for that?”
Earlier Tuesday morning, commissioners unanimously voted to move forward with a $79,500 contract for the Colorado firm OneDigital to conduct the first employee “class and compensation” study since 2014. Commissioners also voted unanimously to bump remote work for eligible five-day workers from one to three days a week.
The planning office’s request to change its deadlines was explained in the staff report, which pointed out that in the past four years, applications have risen over 16% while employees available to do that work have dropped by 40%. One full-time planner position out of four is currently vacant.
Planning and Building Services Director Chris Neubecker told Barron that the hiring trouble is community-wide, and he wasn’t blaming the board.
Barron interrupted Neubecker.
“I’m actually looking for reasons because we have done a lot to try to enhance the hiring process, to increase compensation,” he said.
Other firms around the valley were successful this year in retaining staff, Barron said.
The issue of hiring and retention was in front of commissioners as they discussed their annual budget. Commissioners decided to give 6% pay increases and $1,200 one-time bonuses.
County Commissioners’ Administrator Alyssa Watkins told Barron that she is seeing applicants cite housing as the problem.
“I can tell you that 90% of the communications that I see from applicants who are changing their mind about pursuing a position with the county is related to housing,” Watkins said.
Watkins has taken over some hiring duties since Human Resources Director Dar Rhodes resigned unexpectedly this month after five months on the job, citing personal reasons.
Returning to the question of deadline changes, Commissioner Mark Newcomb said he wasn’t ready to decide.
“It’s a big change rather than continuing to find ways to adapt,” Newcomb said, especially considering some public comments that urged using contractors.
Without new hires, the “only true legal option” would be to up the county’s regulation timelines from 30-45 days to 60 days for environmental analyses, grading permits, sign permits, basic use permits and zoning compliance verifications, Chief Deputy County Attorney Keith Gingery said.
“That doesn’t mean you can’t change these back at some point in the future that you’re fully staffed and you want to shorten those up,” Gingery said.
Commissioner Luther Propst asked if “crisis” would be an appropriate word for the planning and building department hiring status, and he asked if it would be sound to single them out and make “special expedited changes” due to the “emergency situation.”
Administrator Watkins said that Propst’s suggestion of four 10-hour days and part-time work already exists.
“So those are already covered. And I would note that the hiring crisis is throughout the county,” she said. “You are seeing it in these departments because they are before you.”
Watkins said the Rec Center is also struggling to hire and has considered closing one day a week due to lack of staff.
Hiring aside, Gingery said he was most worried about retaining the people who already knew the county’s regulations.
“I’ll just name two very important employees that I think are integral to the operations of the county, Chandler Windom and Hamilton Smith. Without those two people, your planning department quickly has a real big problem,” Gingery told county commissioners.
Smith, who attended the meeting, told commissioners he thought “crisis” was an appropriate term. Even with outsourcing permit work, Smith said, his department would still need to review the influx of applications.
The planning and building office has been working without administrative staff and a code enforcement officer for over a year, Smith said. Sharing that position’s responsibility has been a “radical paradigm shift” of daily expectations, and he said he feared someone beneath him would quit under the current workload.
“I’ve advocated for paying somebody $80,000 to do that and get them in here next week,” he said.
The code enforcement officer is being advertised at $26.95 to $30.49 an hour, according to Indeed.
Commissioners didn’t discuss the salary Smith suggested, which would be closer to $40 an hour for 2,000 hours of annual work.
Barron said he thinks highly of staff but that he was “really struggling” to understand how extending the regulation timeline would streamline or take pressure off.
“It just seems to delay the inevitable that’s hitting the fan,” he said.
The lone public comment was from former town councilor and current construction firm president Don Frank, who said that he had good experiences with the planning and building department, but extending the permitting deadlines wasn’t the ideal solution.
“When we extend deadlines, and that may be what you need to do, I’m not so naive to think that they’ll ever be rolled back,” Frank said. Instead, he suggested building “a more robust culture of efficient and effective collaboration by using remote workers in the new millennium.”
The county commissioners voted 3-1 to continue the decision on extending the permit timeframes to their Oct. 4 meeting.
Commissioner Greg Epstein voted against the motion and said he wasn’t sure continuing the item would help.
“Now we’re at a crisis situation, in a sense, and we’re still in the same place we were almost a year ago,” he said. “I want to understand the root of the problem. Why is it that we aren’t able to even bring out more contractors to fill voids?”
“Now we’re in a crisis situation ... and we’re still in the same place we were almost a year ago.” — Greg Epstein teton county commissioner