Topeka City Leaders Discuss Negative Effects of Undercompensating Engineers

The Topeka city government’s practice of paying its engineers considerably less than what the market is offering is forcing it to pay “astronomical” amounts in consulting fees, acting city manager Bill Cochran said Tuesday night.

The mayor and council will learn on Aug. 9 about proposed strategies to help address the issue, they were told during a working session where they discussed the city’s draft 2023 budget.

“We work these guys to death”

The topic came up when the mayor and council heard from Councilman Tony Emerson, who owns a contracting company that does projects that include replacing streets, sewers and water mains.

Emerson often interacts with the city’s public works department, he said.

“We work these guys to death,” he said. “I mean, I’m going to correspond with them on a project and they’ll send me something at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning in response to something, or 8 a.m. on Friday night, because they have so much on their plate.”

The Public Works and Utilities departments employ fewer than their allotted number of engineers, confirmed Braxton Copley, Director of Public Utilities and Acting Director of Public Works.

The Utilities Department has been short of four engineers since 2018 or 2019, while Public Works has been short of four engineers for about two years, he said.

The Public Works Department is allocating seven positions to full-time engineers, of which three are filled and four are vacant, Copley told the Capital-Journal on Wednesday. The department also has part-time employees helping it, he said.

The Utilities Department assigns seven positions to full-time engineers, three of which are filled and four of which are vacant, Copley said.

All engineering positions are salaried positions, he said.

“It costs us a lot more money”

The city hasn’t been able to fill engineering positions primarily because “we’re paying a lot less than they can earn in the private market,” Copley said.

A city employee with the title of “Engineer IV” would typically be paid around $135,000 per year in the private sector, but the Topeka City Government pays between $30,000 and $50,000 less for this position, Cochran said.

Although paying engineers less has saved the city on salaries, “it’s costing us a lot more” overall because the lack of engineers is forcing the city to contract more with private consultants, he said. -he declares.

Cochran would like to see the city take the money it spends on consulting fees and spend it instead on “hiring better people,” he said.

Stephen Wade, the city’s director of administrative and financial services, told the mayor and council they would hear a presentation at their Aug. 9 meeting on strategies aimed in part at addressing some of the concerns at play.

Over the past few months, the city has been working with a consultant to analyze market outcomes for wages, and details of that analysis will be shared at this meeting, he said.

The findings suggest the city, going forward, should set aside a reserve of money to distribute to jobs it undercompensates relative to peer organizations, Wade said.

Some positions, such as engineers, may see a larger salary increase than others that the city can already compensate at the market rate, he said.

The hiring of a permanent city manager was discussed

On Tuesday evening, the mayor and city council also spent an hour behind closed doors in executive session to discuss the qualifications of candidates who applied for the vacant position of Topeka city manager.

They then voted to order Topeka-based Key Staffing, the company helping the city find a city manager, to “conduct further vetting of candidates and schedule interviews as appropriate.”

The city received nominations from 40 candidates, including 13 with Kansas ties, five who live in Kansas and two who are “local guys,” Cochran said at a news conference Tuesday morning.

Tim Hrenchir can be reached at [email protected] or 785-213-5934.

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