AUGUSTA — Some city employees will start the new year with substantial raises, as city councilors approved pay adjustments as part of a larger ongoing effort to make sure the city can attract and retain workers by increasing their pay to keep pace with competitors.

Officials noted it is becoming increasingly hard to find quality employees as the state’s unemployment rate has plummeted to record lows in recent years and potential employees are harder to come by and have more suitors, so the city took steps to ensure its pay is competitive in the market.

The changes are expected to add about 1% to next year’s taxes.

There will be new contracts with three union locals representing city employees who work at the Augusta Civic Center, as public safety dispatchers, and in public works that include 2% raises and reworked pay step scales. In addition, non-union employees were also granted a 2% salary increase and will see their pay step scales increase by an average of 6%, according to City Manager William Bridgeo.

The 2% raises for non-union employees are retroactive to July, while the new, higher, pay scales take effect with the start of the new year.

Bridgeo said the pay step scales, which provide employees raises based upon their skills and years of service, were adjusted upwards so city employees will be making the equivalent of the pay of the 50th percentile of the same positions in comparable area municipalities.

The data used to determine those figures came from a salary survey and market analysis the city had done this year by Municipal Resources Inc., at a cost of about $26,000, which compared the city’s pay to the municipalities of Auburn, Bangor, Brunswick, Lewiston, Sanford and Waterville, as well as the state of Maine.

Bridgeo, who credited Ralph St. Pierre, finance director and assistant city manager, for working over the past two years to design and negotiate the plan, said the proposal “remedies some significant market discrepancies, boosts morale dramatically and ensures our ability to recruit and retain the high quality workforce we have become accustomed to.”

City councilors approved the new contracts and one-time pay scale adjustments at their meeting last week, in a 5-0 vote.

“This is part of our responsibility to make sure the city works,” said Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Judkins, “to make sure when you go to Hatch Hill, there’s somebody in the guard shack to let you in and out, that when you want to register your vehicle there is a clerk at the window, that when you want your streets plowed, or there is a fire at your home or a need for a police officer, that those people are there to serve you.”

“We were running into such a problem with recruiting new folks, and retaining the ones we had,” he added. “Right now we’re struggling for enough snow plow drivers, and this was becoming a problem across all departments.”

Bridgeo said city councilors had made provisions to pay for the pay adjustments in the current year’s budget.

St. Pierre said Monday the pay adjustments are expected to require about $224,000 from this year’s budget, an amount that was already included in the budget.

And the changes are expected to add roughly $320,000 to next year’s budget.

St. Pierre said that would have an impact, on property taxes next year, of about 1%.

He said all city employees involved in the agreements — nonunion employees and employees represented by the three unions involved in the latest round of negotiations — would get pay increases, generally averaging around 7%, with the highest single pay increase for an employee a 20% jump.

At-Large Councilor Marci Alexander said employees are becoming increasing hard for employers to find and keep. She said the lack of workers, as indicated by Maine’s unemployment rates that have been lower than 4% for 46 consecutive months, means job-seekers are few and have more jobs from which to choose.

“This is a problem that all employers are going to be faced with,” Alexander said. “The unemployment rate in 2012 was 7.7% in Maine. Now it has the lowest unemployment rate that it has had in quite some time and that is going to drive up wages for everybody. So I really like how the city got ahead of this, because we don’t want to lose any of our good employees.”

The city has eight total bargaining units, or union locals. The city already addressed lower than market rate pay in the police and fire departments with previous contractual pay increases.

The city is currently still in negotiations with the union representing general government employees, though Bridgeo said he hoped those talks would be completed within a few weeks.

The city has about 220 full-time employees, about 40 of whom are non-union, the rest unionized.

Mayor David Rollins said the changes should help the city keep its veteran employees, which he said is desirable.

“A big part of the reason of not wanting to lose them is the pool of available replacements is sparse,” he said. “So we don’t want to be out there scraping, trying to get a replacement, when we’ve got veteran employees in positions.”

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