1 in 6 county workers quitting

Leadership changes may be factor in 2011 turnover rate

More than one in six Mesa County employees ended their employment with the county last year, the most in at least 11 years and a figure that concerns some county officials.

A total of 160 of the county’s 916 workers were laid off or fired or voluntarily resigned in 2011, according to a report recently presented to county commissioners by Human Resources Director Sandy Perry. The turnover rate of 17.5 percent was more than double the 8.4 percent turnover rate in 2009.

Perry said the average annual turnover in the public sector ranges from 12 to 14 percent.

“My concern is if they (high turnover rates) continue through this year,” she said. “Then we need to be cognizant of: Is there a deeper issue going on?”

There are a number of reasons behind the higher-than-normal rate at which employees left the county. Some were laid off in another round of budget cuts. Others resigned or were let go as part of leadership changes at the top of their departments. The Health Department and Human Services Department employed new directors at the end of 2010.

“I think some of the departments you saw higher turnover in were departments that have had some leadership change, philosophical change, change in the way they do business,” Perry said. “I think that has had a part in all of that.”

Tracey Garchar, executive director of the Department of Human Services, said it’s not uncommon for employees to come and go when there’s a change at the executive level. Garchar at the beginning of last year fired three supervisors in the child-welfare division as part of a makeover of the program and a philosophical shift in how child-welfare cases are handled.

“I would say that for child welfare, as we have implemented that model, it has tested some workers on that same philosophical level, and some have made the decision to move on,” Garchar wrote in an email, noting others left in search of better jobs or to retire.

Health Department Director Jeff Kuhr agreed new leadership and a departmental restructuring probably accounted for most of the turnover in his department.

Commissioners Janet Rowland and Craig Meis said nothing in the numbers raises a red flag for them.

“Of course, there are some areas where positions were eliminated, or there was simply a change in philosophy,” Rowland said. “I think that’s to be expected, and you change the way you’ve operated or you leave.”

Meis said he looks at the turnover rates on a department-by-department basis to see if there are issues with low wages, leadership, a lack of opportunity to advance or other problems. He said while he’s worried about salaries within the District Attorney’s Office, “Nothing really got highlighted in that discussion we had (with Perry) that we haven’t seen in the past.”

Commissioner Steve Acquafresca, however, called the 17 percent turnover rate “inordinately high” and said it’s not sustainable. He speculated the county is becoming less competitive with other employers in its ability to retain employees.

“There could be a quite a slate of reasons for that, be it compensation, be it benefits, be it employee morale. I think it could be all of those issues,” he said.

District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said low pay in his office is a “matter of high concern” that he’s discussed with County Administrator Chantal Unfug, the current board of commissioners and commissioner candidates.

Hautzinger said he lost 11 of his 20 prosecutors since county employee wages were frozen in 2009. All of them took higher-paying jobs, he said.

He said prosecutors always made less money than their private-practice counterparts, something his staff largely was willing to accept based on their passion for their job. But, he said, that factor only counts for so much when employees have not received pay raises, and benefits have been reduced for the last few years.

“It’s one thing to ask people to make a significant financial sacrifice when they at least have that expectation of cost-of-living increases, merit increases. But when there’s absolutely no possibility of that, it’s really hard for me to say to folks, ‘Your job satisfaction ought to be enough,’ ” Hautzinger said.

The county completed exit interviews with 86 employees who voluntarily left the county last year. Given the ability to cite multiple reasons for why they were leaving, the highest percentage of workers, 17 percent, cited a better opportunity. Fourteen percent attributed their decision to work conditions. Salary was the third-most cited reason, with 12 percent, according to data provided by the Human Resources Department.


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