City Council Told That City Employees Leaving Due To Low Pay Could Leave City In Dire Straits

Tuesday, July 27, 2021 - by Joseph Dycus

The city of Chattanooga’s Chief of Staff Brent Goldberg gave a stark report to the City Council on Tuesday afternoon on how low pay for city employees can and will negatively impact Chattanooga in the coming years. 

“Our frontline employees are significantly below the public and private sectors among employers in the region,” Mr. Goldberg said. “We are seeing the inability to hire and retain employees.”

“We have equipment sitting idle, an inability to service residents in a timely manner, and we also see increased employee burnout and increased overtime costs.

We project it will get worse if not addressed.”

He said that truck drivers are paid 35 percent below the market rate, while equipment mechanics are paid 20 percent below their market rate. He said the situation is also dire for the fire department, whose starting salary is $32,524 or about 25 percent below the market. He said that according to exit interviews, 60 percent of resignations are due to low pay, and that firefighters are leaving faster than they are being hired. 

“We could see the suspension of training activities and public engagement events, cancellation of PTO, implementing mandatory overtime,” Mr. Goldberg said. “And we’d see brownouts, which means crews would be shut down on a rolling or permanent basis.”

He said the police department is facing a similar issue, where the starting salary of $36,990 is around 25 percent below the market. He said application numbers have plummeted, with only 82 applicants last year, compared to 710 in 2019. Because of a rising number of retirements, Mr. Goldberg told the council that officers are having to handle an increased burden.

“Calls per officer are rising, and we’re up to over 500 calls per officer a year. For comparison, the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office answers about 350 calls per patrol deputy. That’s a 52 percent difference in calls.”

Speaking of the Sheriff’s Office, he said that office is one of CPD’s main competitors when it comes to recruiting new officers. He said that working as a patrol deputy or in the jail for the Sheriff’s Office is a higher-paying job than being a new Chattanooga police officer. 

“Increased workload and low pay levels lead to more attrition and more churn. We see it every year, more and more officers leave at the two, three or four year mark to go to other departments for better pay,” he said.

Public works is also struggling to fill positions, and Mr. Goldberg said that there are some vacancies that are two years old and have had no applicants. He told the council that with an expected wave of retirements could leave the city “unable to perform basic functions.”

“Public works can only staff one shift of drivers to apply salt and sand to roads in case of a storm. This could bring life and safety risks we don’t want to face. We’re also facing a sharp reduction in brush pickup because we’re having to move drivers to the garbage trucks to pick up garbage, which is top priority,” he said

Mr. Goldberg said the city is close to suspending curbside recycling due to a lack of staff, and that garbage pickup is the top priority. He said that in the worst case scenario, the frequency of garbage pickups would also have to be decreased if too many drivers quit. 

He said the lack of skilled staff often means the city spends more money than if the city were to pay employees at a market rate. He said that if the city did not have to contract with private companies, the city could save around $1.2 million a year If they had employees at market rate doing those same tasks. 

“Some of our next steps involve updating the pay study that was started in 2019, and we need to finalize the updated version,” Mr. Goldberg said. “We need to focus on funding and filling positions that have life, safety or quality of life impact on residents. We’re going to be shifting our focus to putting energy into recruiting those positions.” 

Councilman Ken Smith thanked Mr. Goldberg for his presentation, and said the public needs to be aware of the information. Councilman Darrin Ledford emphasized how other counties like Bradley County pay more than Hamilton County does, and that residents and constituents need to understand why paying city employees a competitive salary is important. 

“We have all these kids at our rec centers and families that work for the city, and why don’t we create a pipeline for their siblings and people to come in and reward them for bringing people on,” asked Councilman Anthony Byrd.

Mr. Goldberg said that creating programming that gets children excited about those kinds of careers is important, as is what he called “out of the box thinking around workforce development.” However, he also said that until pay is increased, recruiting of any kind will be difficult. 

Click here for the PowerPoint presentation.



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