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Wasatch County

Heber City offices short-staffed amid growth pressures

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Ben Lasseter
/
KPCW
Heber City Hall

Ahead of a busy year, Heber City department heads are asking for help recruiting and keeping employees. Public works, police, engineering, planning, building, and parks and cemetery departments all say they need more people.

At the city’s annual strategic planning retreat last week, the council spent two days hearing from city departments about their states of affairs. The council doesn’t vote during retreats, but rather focuses on setting goals and priorities.

During the retreat, City Engineer Russell Funk praised the engineers he has on staff. But he said undergoing 100% turnover in 2021 has made the goals for 2022 challenging to meet.

“We’re short-handed, and honestly, we’ve got new staff that’s still trying to learn,” Funk said. “We’re not running at full capacity. It takes time, and we need more staff, just like everyone else. I think every engineering firm in town is also looking for engineers, and it’s not just here, it’s everywhere. It’s public, private. There’s really nobody in that 10-year experience range even out there looking, so that’s a challenge for us.”

The city is slated to replace water and sewer lines within 121 blocks in the Old Town area - a major public works project that’s expected to cost roughly $24 million.

Other large-scale upcoming projects include new roads in prominent travel areas, irrigation water meters at Heber homes, and a North Village streets and stormwater master plan.

None of those can happen without staff.

“Threats that we have [include] growth and manpower,” said Matthew Kennard, director of public works, who also lost employees last year. “We keep adding more roads to Heber City, but we aren’t adding new plows or plow drivers. We need to be focused on the roads that we’re adding into with the Sorenson annexation and all of that.”

Wes Greenhalgh of the building department said there were 645 building permits to review in 2021, a 185% increase over the year before. That exacerbated the need for two more inspectors. To try to meet the city’s needs, Greenhalgh and another employee had to work while sick in November.

Mark Rounds of the parks and cemetery department said come summertime, he’ll need to offer competitive wages to hire seasonal workers.

Police Chief Dave Booth said he’s lost officers and missed hires to better paying jobs elsewhere, including the Wasatch County Sheriff’s Office.

“We have numerous recruitments that we’re doing,” Booth said. “I can’t hire off of the first recruitment. Sometimes, I can hire off the second. Sometimes, I’ll pick one up on a third. Where I was seeing 50 to 60 applicants for an open law enforcement position a few years ago, sometimes now I see 10. And we get five that will show up. And out of the five that show up, maybe we like one, and maybe we like none, and that’s the problems that we’re facing right now.”

Booth said there are six positions open out of 24 on the force, and that will increase to eight early this year. Two of the vacancies have been open for more than two years.

He asked the city council for 10% raises for full-time officers, not including himself. He said his budget could cover the first six months of those bonuses because of how far under budget he ended last year by being understaffed. Councilors voiced support for the idea.

Booth also recommended the city offer better benefits, such as fast-tracking raises, 401k donations, mid-year bonuses and various incentives that have helped other city governments retain employees.

City Manager Matt Brower said in a time like this when staffing shortages are widespread, attracting employees is about finding a balance. For some departments, he said outsourcing work to consultants could help alleviate burdens.

“As policy makers, we have to figure out where the sweet spot is,” Brower said. “It’s different by department, it’s different by situation. I would imagine P. D. for example, because it’s emergency based, that sweet spot’s probably going to match the growth. Other departments may not. At some point, the economy’s going to go down, and if we make decisions to staff to the top, we may have tough decisions when we have the next recession.”

Brower also said the city had budgeted $50,000 toward a reassessment of employees’ pay scales. He said he hoped that could come up for action by the council in February.

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