On the Job

City officials say they continue to push to fill vacant positions

News (Anson Stevens-Bollen)

City of Santa Fe officials say the ongoing execution of recommendations from a recent salary study may help address ongoing staffing issues—although halfway into the year its vacancy rate remains basically unchanged.

In January, Human Resources Director Bernadette Salazar provided a head count of city employees to SFR—both union and non-union. That count showed 1,290 filled positions and 373 vacancies—a vacancy rate of 22%. New figures from May show 1,299 filled positions and 394 vacancies, which represents a 23% vacancy rate.

Salazar characterizes the increase as “really minor,” and claims recently created positions—including six new airport security officers and two public records specialists in the City Attorney’s Office—may factor into the bump. As of press time, three of those security officer positions remain unfilled, and one of four public records specialist positions is vacant, she adds.

Still, Salazar says her department has taken steps to recruit more effectively, including hosting rapid hiring events; reducing steps regarding approvals; and streamlining internal processes.

“We definitely want to see these positions get filled,” Salazar says. “I think we’ll continue to make strides in that area.”

The city will also lose key directors in the coming weeks, including Office of Affordable Housing Director Alexandra Ladd and Land Use Director Jason Kluck. Former Community Development Director Richard Brown retired June 21. City Manager John Blair tells SFR the city will name interim directors this week.

Both Salazar and Blair say continued implementation of recommendations from a classification and compensation study conducted by contractor Evergreen Solutions and approved earlier this year by the governing body will help lower its vacancy rate. That study recommended a new pay structure that addressed both external market rates and internal parity issues, such as tenure within city government and specific positions. In April, the city implemented the first phase of the new pay plan for more than 700 employees; police, fire and non-union employees received an overall, average 8% increase in that round, city officials said at the time.

“The results of the class and comp have and will continue to help us fill a number of positions,” Blair says. “We’re wanting to ensure that we’re competitive with other cities in the region and we can recruit the best people.”

Salazar says “the pay increase really does help with recruitment,” noting a rise in hires in recent months. The city hired 21 people in March, six more people than the previous month. In May, she adds, the city hired 90 people, but notes that number is partially made up of part-time employees who will help with the city’s youth summer programs.

The city has had particular difficulty hiring transit drivers and currently has 44 vacant positions, according to Salazar. “We are really struggling to hire drivers that hold a commercial driver’s license, which is required to drive those large buses,” she says, noting other agencies, such as Santa Fe Public Schools, have also struggled with the same problem.

Mayor Alan Webber, who sponsored the resolution updating the city pay plan, says the issue of hiring is not confined to the city.

“We always look at the numbers and draw conclusions, but I guess the question is compared to what? If we had zero vacancies, that would be a problem, so what is the goal and what is the norm for cities our size?” Webber says. “Our unemployment rate in Santa Fe is very low, that’s usually considered a good thing, but that means you’ve got a hot job market, and the people who are available are limited.”

New Mexico’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 3.8% in May, with a 3.4% rate for Santa Fe County. A four-year Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act plan released June 26 by the state Department of Workforce Solutions finds New Mexico has an “inverted” job market, with more job vacancies than people to fill them.

Santa Fe County government has a 16% vacancy rate based on May 2024 data: 162 vacancies out of a total of 1,002 positions. Santa Fe County Communications Coordinator Olivia Romo tells SFR the county conducted its own classification and compensation study in October 2022, when the county had a much higher vacancy rate.

“Once our salaries went up to market rates, that really helped honor folks to join public service or to come back,” Romo says. “Overall, the county has bolstered its recruitment, and we’re doing pretty good.”

Whether the city’s pay plan will help address all levels of vacancies remains to be seen. District 2 Councilor Michael Garcia tells SFR he questions the plan effectiveness in more specialized positions like those of the outgoing directors.

“The messaging that has been given is very much a broad sweep of the impact, and I am somebody who focuses more on the details,” Garcia says. “I would like to see the comparison—the before and after—and then I can make that determination if this is a viable recruitment tool for positions such as these.”

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