Concerned that the high cost of housing is affecting Ventura County's ability to hire and keep employees, the Board of Supervisors established a committee to study offering a variety of new housing benefits.
The board also agreed Tuesday to boost salaries for hard-to-recruit positions by 5%, citing serious difficulties in recruiting for jobs such as county planners, criminalists and engineers.
And it appropriated $1 million to reward county employees who go back to school by increasing their pay between 2.5% and 5%, depending on the degree earned. The board will also pick up half of the 30% increase expected on next year's medical benefits package.
Supervisors acted on the recommendation of Ronald W. Komers, the county's personnel director. In a hard-hitting report, Komers said Ventura County's "ability to attract and retain qualified professionals is rapidly declining."
"Our fixed salary ranges and lack of incentive pay make it difficult to compete with employers who have greater flexibility in their wage and benefits structure," Komers wrote to the board.
He cited a Personnel Department study showing that salaries for certain skilled trades in Ventura County lag between 17.5% and 49.9% behind other Southern California counties and cities. While Komers said it would be impossible to raise salaries overnight, Ventura County could become competitive by offering an attractive package of extra benefits, he said.
A committee formed by the board will study whether the county should also provide relocation allowances, low-interest mortgages and other financial assistance to both new hires and present employees.
"We're experiencing recruiting problems in some areas and it's caused a major look at the whole system," said Supervisor Maggie Erickson. "We can't do a whole lot about raising everybody's pay but these are some ways we can go about making it more attractive to work here."
She said the board's action was prompted by a growing realization that the county is losing qualified employees because of high housing costs and lower-than-average salaries.
In several recent cases, qualified out-of-state candidates rejected job offers from Ventura County once they realized the cost of housing, Komers said.
Several department heads pitched for higher salaries for their staff members, each recounting what they called horror stories of recruiting or retaining employees.
William Fordin, Correctional Services Agency director, complained that the state's prison-building boom has inflated salaries and benefits packages for corrections and probation personnel.
"So far, at least seven positions--experienced, well-trained personnel--have left," Fordin said.
State Jobs More Attractive
One probation office supervisor received a 10% raise and a car by going with the state, he said. Another 33 staff members, representing 25% of the department's sworn employees, recently passed a state exam for the California Youth Authority, and several are awaiting job offers, he said.
Things are just as tough in the Public Social Services Department, Director Jim Isom said. Isom said employees tell him in exit interviews that they love the county, the people and their jobs. "But we just can't afford to work here," Isom said he has been told.
Problems in staff recruiting even affect the county's ability to draw low-level, blue-collar employees, said Art Goulet, director of public works.
"We can't even get maintenance workers," he told the board.
With the median price of a home in Ventura County soaring past $250,000, the time has come to look at offering new employees a broad range of extras, Erickson said.
The idea has already taken root in the private sector, where a growing number of companies offer a variety of innovative housing and relocation benefits to lure employees to high-cost Ventura County.
One hospital in Ventura County rents homes and apartments that it owns for up to $150 below market rates. An oil firm offers a $30,000 bonus for skilled professionals who relocate to Ventura County. A handful of firms offer low-cost housing loans, bridge loans and the services of relocation consultants.
And the cities of Sunnyvale and Palo Alto in the high-tech Silicon Valley provide relocation reimbursement and housing assistance to management employees.
In Ventura County, officials said they fear that their offices have become "training grounds" for employees who learn technical skills, then jump over to private industry and a higher salary.
"Our employees will often go out and get more education but then they look for another job. I'm all for them getting that education but then staying here," Erickson said.
Toward that goal, the board approved a 2.5% raise for all county employees who complete a two-year college degree, a 3.5% raise for those who complete a bachelor's program and a 5% raise for those who complete a graduate program or an equivalent license or certificate. The county already reimburses for tuition and books.
Comers acknowledged that the lack of a large, four-year college in Ventura County has hurt the county's ability to find skilled, local graduates.
Komers also said it is time to revise what he called outdated civil service rules that result in the loss of many qualified candidates because of a hiring process that can last six months.
"We currently face a complex problem that does not readily lend itself to short-term solutions," Komers said.