Almost 30 employees could have their pay frozen because the study said they are being paid more than the median amount.

City Administrator Martha Bennett is recommending that about 70 city employees receive raises after an outside compensation study showed they are being paid less than the median pay in their fields.

Almost 30 employees could have their pay frozen because the study said they are being paid more than the median amount.

Bennett is not recommending cuts to those employees' pay because of the impact on morale and because many have their compensation rates set by contracts.

The study found that the city administrator, city attorney and all eight department heads were paid less than the median for other public employees in their fields.

All 10 top-level employees are paid at least $90,000 and could receive raises.

The Ashland City Council would have to approve the pay increases.

"I realize we're in economic hard times and that may last three or four years," Bennett said. "But when you lose employees, there's a cost to that. When I got here, the turnover was incredible. There's a cost to that."

In addition to the loss of experience, the city pays recruitment firms to find new managers. Most recently, it paid $25,000 for the recruitment of a new leader for the city-owned Ashland Fiber Network Internet service.

Since 2000, the city of Ashland has had turnover in all 10 top management positions — with eight of those positions being refilled since 2005.

For just the city administrator post alone, Ashland has had four different people in the position since the 1998 retirement of long-time City Administrator Brian Almquist. Bennett has held the job since 2006.

However, while a few people in top management positions left to accept jobs with more pay and responsibilities, at least three left after run-ins with City Councilor Cate Hartzell, who did not win reelection in 2008. Others retired, faced political controversies over issues like community policing, or wanted to spend more time with their families.

The city of Ashland has had some candidates for top jobs withdraw because of high housing costs here.

Bennett's proposal to raise pay for dozens of city employees comes as the city government is already facing financial troubles that have led to staff lay-offs. The Ashland City Council and Ashland Citizens' Budget Committee also increased property taxes to preserve key posts like firefighter/paramedics.

On March 16, the City Council will consider whether to increase water rates by 8 percent and sewer rates by 9 percent to help cover rising costs.

Other publicly funded organizations are also facing financial troubles.

Southern Oregon University has had rounds of pay cuts and tuition increases.

In June 2009, the Ashland School District Board of Directors unanimously voted to cut teachers' pay by 5.1 percent for this school year. Board members eliminated 56 positions to deal with a state funding decline triggered by the economic recession.

The cost of raises

The City Council authorized paying Sacramento-based CPS Human Resources $51,660 for the compensation study in order to help meet a goal to retain city employees.

Bennett is recommending phasing in pay increases for employees paid below median amounts for their fields.

The cost for the raises would be $124,394 in the coming fiscal year that starts on July 1, according to a memo to City Council members.

The full cost of raises to bring employees up to median figures would be about two and a half times that amount if the raises were done all in the same year, Bennett estimated.

She said she doesn't know yet where the money would come from to pay for the raises, but she won't implement the raises if it would lead to more city staff layoffs.

The compensation study did not compare the city employees' pay with their peers in the private sector.

CPS Human Resources Services Manager of Retention and Deployment Services Debbie Owen said businesses are not willing to share compensation information, and pay ranges are far wider in the private sector than in the public sector.

Because of medical cost and quality variations in different parts of Oregon, the study also did not compare city of Ashland health insurance benefits to those given in other jurisdictions, Bennett said.

Some members of the Ashland Citizens' Budget Committee had wanted those figures because they might have helped the city control compensation costs if the study had found city of Ashland employees get generous health insurance benefits.

Employees have fought hard to maintain their health insurance benefits.

In 2008, the city of Ashland finally moved most employees to a preferred provider health insurance plan. Employees must stay within a network of health care providers who have agreed to the plan's terms. Such networks have been a staple of health insurance plans in the private sector for at least a decade.

City of Ashland employees pay 5 percent of the cost of their health insurance premiums, Ashland Human Resources Director Tina Gray said.

The cost ranges from $24.30 per month for just the employee to $68.22 per month for full family coverage, Gray said.

The average Oregonian who received health insurance through a public or private sector employer paid 14 percent of the premium for individual coverage. The average Oregonian who received full family coverage paid 26 percent of the premium, according to 2008 data from The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. That was the most recently available data.

In 2008, only 52.6 percent of private sector employers in Oregon offered health insurance to employees, and 18.9 percent of non-elderly Oregonians lacked health insurance, according to The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Tough sell?

Ashland Mayor John Stromberg said it could be hard to justify asking city taxpayers — many of whom don't have health insurance — to pay for raises for city employees who do get benefits.

He said with many cities experiencing financial troubles, they are less likely to be able to hire away city of Ashland employees.

City Councilor Carol Voisin also expressed concerns about how to justify the proposed city employee pay raises to residents.

"For people in our community who are paying taxes, how do we interpret what we're doing to them when their salaries are declining?" asked Voisin, who works at SOU and has seen the pay cuts there.

Bennett said the study showed that many city employees are underpaid, with some critical positions paid at rates that are 20 percent below median rates in other jurisdictions.

Pay for managers' has not kept pace with many lower level positions because managers are not paid overtime and they have accepted smaller cost-of-living adjustments over the past decade, she said.

"Now that you've done the study, it's hard to tell an employee, 'You're 9 percent under market, but we're not going to do anything,'" Bennett said.

The study compared Ashland to Jackson County and the cities of Medford, Grants Pass, Klamath Falls, Corvallis, Springfield, McMinnville, Lake Oswego, Forest Grove, Arcata, Redmond and Bend.

Firefighters and police officers were not included in the study because state statutes influence their compensation levels. Ashland can more easily compare the amount it pays its emergency workers with the pay given to emergency workers in similarly sized cities, Gray said.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.