Cities struggle to keep professional staffing

Municipal workers often cannot afford costs in North Fulton



JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – The average home price in Johns Creek is $390,000 (according to the Zillow Home Value Index), out of reach for many of its city employees. Yet the city manages to attract and retain above-average employees. How does the city do it?

North Fulton is home to Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Roswell and Milton – four cities that are dominate “Top 10 or 20” lists nationally and statewide for various quality-of-life standards. But with the high cost of living – driven by high-end neighborhoods, quality schools and low crime – these cities naturally command high home values.

Even affordable housing is at a premium, so city employees, teachers, medical technicians and other skilled personnel can be in short supply for communities like these. These factors weigh on municipal employees’ recruitment.

Johns Creek had to take an especially aggressive approach from the start when it incorporated in 2006. City Manager Warren Hutmacher said it was vision of the elected officials from the beginning to recruit aggressively for highly motivated professionals.

“There really is no secret or magic formula to building a high quality organization,” said Hutmacher. “You have to make it a focused priority, and this is exactly what Johns Creek has done since incorporation in 2006. Each City Council in the history of Johns Creek has recognized that it is not enough to build a great organization and expect it to remain on top.”

A successful staffing plan also has to be properly resourced, Hutmacher added. The City Council, city staff and public safety departments work closely each year to identify the latest technologies and other resources needed to keep public safety personnel on the leading edge of their respective fields.

“Our chiefs [Police Chief Ed Densmore and Fire Chief Jeff Hogan] created and sustained a culture of professionalism and respect,” Hutmacher said. “It took a focus on education and training with the elected officials sustaining and providing resources year after year.”

Police Chief Densmore, with the City Council’s backing, made it a priority to get accredited through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. It tells a recruit this department meets the highest standards. It encourages dedicated officers this is a professional organization and discourages officers who don’t want to put in the extra effort.

Fire Chief Hogan says the city does not have a lot of inducements to offer firefighters. In fact they all live outside the city.

The city is aggressive in matching “the going rate” for salaries and benefits, but Hogan said he gets top recruits based on the department’s reputation for professionalism.

“I’m sure it is the same with Chief Densmore’s [police] department. What we hear from recruits is ‘I’ve always wanted to work here ever since Johns Creek started.’ And we didn’t just go hire the guy with 15 years of experience and nothing else on his resume. We would look at the guy with three to five years who was outstanding with his current employer.”

The city does pay a housing stipend to police officers living in the city if they are willing to drive their police cruiser home and park it in the driveway. But it is not so much a hiring inducement as it is an inducement for officers to live in the city.

“We think it gives the community added security to have those cars in the public’s view,” Johns Creek Human Resources Director Mary Ann Haskins said.

Creating an organization that insists on professionalism and expertise has a synergetic effect on that organization, Haskins said.

“First and foremost, we’re trying to hire people who believe customer service is important,” she said. “We build a culture of service and a desire to help others. I tell the new council members when they come on board that our employees view Johns Creek as their hometown regardless of whether they live on the outskirts in another city.”

The city doesn’t lower the bar in filling positions. Haskins said the city’s reputation makes it desirable as well. Ten years ago, the city offered “strategically above” starting salaries in certain positions.

“We are also a very lean workforce. So from an overall budgeting standpoint when you have fewer head counts you can still come out financially better off,” Haskins said.

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