BOISE, Idaho — As the City of Trees' population has boomed, so have the ranks of Boise's city staff.

Between fiscal years 2013 and 2020, Boise added the equivalent of 228 full-time positions. These new employees range across departments, from planning and development services, to police, to community engagement and arts and history. 

While Boise was still climbing out of the recession in fiscal year 2013, it budgeted for the equivalent of roughly 1,588 full-time positions. But now, with the city's population growth and an array of added services, the 2020 budget calls for the equivalent of 1,816 full-time positions, not including seasonal staff. The city overall, as of earlier this summer, employs just over 2,500 people, including seasonal staff.

Some of these employees have been added after cuts were made to staffing during the lean years of the Great Recession, but others were newly created positions to staff new city programs and facilities, and to keep up with growth.

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City spokesman Mike Journee said in addition to maintaining a high quality of life for residents, the city has added staff to increase its long-term planning for climate change, affordable housing and other issues that will impact the city for decades to come.

"Having enough people to get through the day is a different thing than having enough people to think 20 years down the road," Journee said.

Overall, the city's employment growth rate isn't too far off from the population growth. Boise's population growth since 2013 is roughly 12.7%, compared to the city's staff growth of 14%. Boise's population has grown from an estimated 209,700 in 2013 to 236,310 in 2019, according to estimates from the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho.

In comparison to cities of similar size nationwide, Boise's city staffing level falls somewhere in the middle. Its current full-time employee count dwarfs the similarly sized Hialeah, Florida, and Fremont, California, which have 1,106 and 952 full-time employees, respectively.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on the other hand, has about as many residents as Boise does —221,599 people — but more than double the full-time employees, with 4,343. Richmond, Virginia, another state capitol close in population to Boise, did not respond to requests for its employee count.

Boise's $764.7 million budget for next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, includes 46 hires:

- Six new police officers

- 25 new positions at the Boise Airport

- A mechanic in fleet services

- A new prosecutor

- An emergency preparedness coordinator, a training captain for the fire department and a position focused on fire prevention

- Five positions in Information Technology

- A new Parks and Recreation maintenance worker

- A planner focused on transportation in Planning and Development Services

- Three positions in water renewal

COMPETITION

Competition for workers is steep in today's market, with Ada County's unemployment rate as low as 2.7%.

The city of Boise pays full-time employees an average hourly wage of $28.30. The average is $15.22 for part-time workers and $11.80 for seasonal staff. 

City council members' salaries come to $12.34 per hour, and Mayor Dave Bieter's comes to $67.73 an hour.

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Kristine Smith, Boise’s compensation analyst, said some of the most difficult positions to fill are positions in the finance department, information technology and skilled trades like HVAC technicians or electricians. These positions require specialized expertise and are in demand in the private sector, too. So the city has to try to make its wages and benefits as competitive as possible with private companies to attract employees.

“We do a market study every year so we evaluate every single position and determine whether there are adjustments that need to be made,” she said.

STAFFING UP

During the recession, the city removed positions through attrition and early retirements. Boise Human Resources Director Kelcey Stewart said one of the major targets for reductions was Planning and Development Services, which handles all the preparations for new construction and planning. Almost all of the activity in the department stalled when the economy turned south, so the city has had a lot of catching up to do in order to get the department back up to full speed.

“If you look at the time period between 2013 and current, the biggest piece of it was adding the (Planning and Development Services staffing) back in,” Stewart said. “As the market picked back up, building again, it was bringing them back up to the level of being able to provide the service."

Between the low of 90 full-time employees in Planning and Development during fiscal year 2015 year and the upcoming fiscal year, there has been a net gain just shy of the equivalent of 10 new positions added since the recession. Some of the duties associated with some positions were transferred out of the department itself, which is why the department shows fewer positions added than the actual number. 

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Last year, Boise added three new full-time positions to the department to keep up with the influx of building permits, and there is one new planner focused on the city's Keep Boise Moving transportation initiative proposed in the fiscal year 2020 budget. 

Almost half of the city's employment growth since 2013 has been in areas covered by enterprise fund, such as the airport, the geothermal system and water renewal services, with the addition of 97 full-time positions. The funding for these positions come from fees collected for services. Boise added employees to staff the Dixie Drain facility, which cleans phosphorous out of a canal that feeds into the Boise River, and employees to support the growth of the geothermal system and manage new sewer districts.

“When someone flushes the toilet, they don’t think about the people it requires at the back end, at the treatment plant, to make sure everything goes right,” Journee said. “That public health and safety aspect of what we do is the foundation of everything else we do. If we don’t do that, then (any) of the accolades Boise has gotten in the last 10 years would never have come along.”

ARTS, COMMUNITY GROWTH

City officials will also add a public art program assistant for a limited time in the Arts and History Department and another temporary position is also for community engagement and the human resources department in next year's budget.

Since 2013, Boise grew the Arts and History Department from five employees to 12.5 positions, and opened the James Castle House Museum in Northwest Boise, built and staffed a new fire station. The city also purchased the Quail Hollow golf course to add to its Parks and Recreation offerings.

Community Engagement, the city's public relations department, was founded in 2015 and will have 13 full-time positions next fiscal year. Boise also brought on the Bown Crossing Library, greened up multiple parks, constructed two phases of the Whitewater Park at Esther Simplot Park, and just this summer expanded Zoo Boise.

This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press, read more on IdahoPress.com.

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