Among negative stereotypes perpetuated by some activists, who don't seem to like the common values of Colorado Springs, is a myth that says local public employees labor under substandard wages as a result of stingy tax policies.
It's a long-held belief, in and out of City Hall.
The mantra says that Colorado Springs cannot compete for the best and brightest public employees with Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins or other Front Range cities that pay so much more.
"I thought we would be 10 percent behind" competing cities, said Councilman Merv Bennett, who was understandably influenced by conventional wisdom.
The councilman said he was "shocked" to learn this week that a comprehensive, 18-month study of city government wages showed how City Hall competes favorably with other cities and the private sector. The study revealed that Colorado Springs pays employees, on average, 1 percent below the market in a job-to-job comparison with other cities and private sector employers.
"Anytime you are within plus or minus 5 percent of the market, you are paying competitively," said Margaret Dyekman, a consultant with Corporate Compensation Services.
City government's tiny discrepancy will get even smaller with anticipated raises for 47 city employees, who work among a pool of 1,100, with slightly below-market salaries.
Keep in mind, our city government wages are on par with those of competing employers even after a six-year wage freeze. We can safely bet some other employers gave raises during those six years, which means our community may have been paying above-market wages to city employees.
We should try to keep up, staying within a 5 percent plus/minus zone. City officials want to create a merit-pay system, which would give above-average compensation to high-performance employees. It's a great idea.
Taxpayers have an ethical obligation to maintain city wages that are at least within 5 percent of competing municipalities. City leaders should not focus too much on keeping wages competitive with the private sector. First off, the private sector compensates generously and appropriately for employees who help drive large profits. Moreover, wages are not the only element of compensation for employees in any sector.
Though city-employee wages are competitive, the city's retirement benefits trounce almost anything offered in the private sector. State law requires the city to provide civilian employees with membership in Colorado's Public Employees' Retirement Association (PERA), which guarantees lavish retirement benefits regardless of what happens to the market. Such retirement packages are known as "defined benefit" plans and were mostly abandoned by the private sector over the past two decades. They're the kind of plans that are bankrupting cities large and small throughout the country.
The city's defined-benefit pension plan is such a huge liability that it keeps city government from creating good jobs and has led to massive reductions in staffing. The liability posed by PERA is the only reason Mayor Steve Bach has embarked upon a plan to outsource a variety of city services that have traditionally been provided by city employees.
Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, ran a bill that would free Colorado Springs and other communities from the state government's requirement that city employees come under PERA. His bill was squashed by majority Democrats in committee on a party-line vote. Bach has testified about the problem at the Legislature and discussed it in detail with Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Now that we know city employees are fairly compensated, no one can argue the need for an above-market retirement plan that has killed good jobs and jeopardizes the fiscal survival of city governsment.
Let's keep city pay competitive and let's reward superior employees with higher-than-average pay. First and foremost, let's work to change state law and fix the defined-benefits retirement mess.