City talks about staffing issues

Third in a series on the Seal Beach’s strategic planning

City department heads and the city manager recently told the city council that current staffing is not sustainable.

The subject came up during the day-long City Council Strategic Planning Workshop on April 4. (For the previous two articles in this series, visit

During her review of the city’s five-year financial outlook, Finance Director/Treasurer Barbara Arenado told the council that staffing levels had not changed since 2013. She also said their workload had increased substantially over the past 10 years.

Later, various department heads weighed in on the staffing issue during a discussion of the city’s priorities.

According to a handout that was available to the public, Seal Beach has 110 full-time employees. (Recent job listings for the city for Seal Beach put the number at 214 employees.) The document reported seven vacancies. The document didn’t include the city’s population, which has been put at about 25,000 people.

According to City Manager Jill Ingram current staffing was just not sustainable on a day-to-day basis. Ingram encouraged anyone who wanted to talk about staffing to address that issue.

“There’s been a big transition, especially in this market. There’s a lot of competition for the good staff,” said Assistant City Manager Patrick Gallegos.

“Since last July, we actually have 22 or 23 new hires,” Gallegos said.

“And that doesn’t include the onboarding, the training, [and] institutional knowledge,” Gallegos said.

“So when we talk about projects, you know, they may be delayed because we’re going through this,” Gallegos said.

“We have to get them up to speed on the project itself,” Gallegos said.

He said for a typical management analyst position, the city might get 70 to 80 applicants. Gallegos said the last time, there were seven or eight applications. “Now you can say, well, maybe it’s the salary that’s causing this issue,” Gallegos said.

“It’s not all about salaries. When we do exit interviews, it rarely comes up that the city is not paying enough,” Gallegos said.

“It’s really about workload and lack of opportunity,” Gallegos said.

Gallegos also said there are financial limitations to hiring more staff.

He said the city needed to create opportunities within the organization.

He said that what the Police Department has done is have a succession plan. He said that was something they created and they did it well.

Gallegos said that what he thinks they should do at City Hall is to make sure City Hall is getting employees ready to take the next position that is in front of them.

Gallegos said that what they need to do at City Hall is train or mentor employees to make sure they are ready to take the next position in front of them.

“I think if we’re really listening to our employees, and that’s what we’re trying to do here, I think having a succession plan will help us kind of understand,” Gallegos said.

Police Chief Michael Henderson offered his perspective on the staffing issue.

“Across the board, chiefs talk about recruitment and retention issues,” Henderson said.

He said the SBPD doesn’t have that issue in Seal Beach.

“It’s a desirable place to be a police officer,” Henderson said.

“But we built that over the course of the last 10 or 12 years,” Henderson said.

He said succession planning has a lot of components.

He said one of their more successful programs has been tuition reimbursement. Henderson said everyone in command staff either has or aspires to a master’s degree level of education. He said that was an incentive.

Henderson said the city helped him to achieve his bachelor’s degree and his master’s degree. He said they sent him to leadership schools and those type of things.

“At the time of my appointment, I was competitive with chiefs from other cities,” Henderson said.

He said the department was keeping people within our own city and keeping their institutional knowledge.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunities for that in all the departments throughout the city,” Henderson said.

Marine Safety Chief Joe Bailey talked about the staffing issues in his department.

“We have 75 part-time employees and they’re valuable for the city. They’re actually cost effective,” Bailey said.

He pointed out a problem he saw on the horizon. According to Bailey, the state has raised minimum wage so quickly that the pool supervisor is being paid “maybe” 50 cents more than line staff.

As for the beach lifeguards, Bailey said the city’s beach staff starts around $19 an hour and Seal Beach is competing with Long Beach that starts at $25 an hour.

“Since I’ve become a lifeguard in ’89, when I was making $8.25 an hour and minimum wage was $4.25 an hour, beach lifeguards have always made double minimum wage,” Bailey said. “And that’s up and down the coast.”

Bailey said right now Seal Beach was falling behind quickly.

“So we’re losing people to Starbucks and McDonald’s and those type of things,” Bailey said.

His last point, he said, was that part-time employees were effective financially.

“The first person that people see when they come to our city is usually going to be a lifeguard the tower,” Bailey said.

“An 18-year-old kid represents the city and all of us sitting here,” Bailey said.

“And so in my mind, it’s important to hire the best people possible and train as well as we can,” Bailey said.

“I know it’s shocking, but I think we need it maybe for $30 an hour at this point for our part-time employees,” Bailey said.

“That number is hard. Right? It’s hard for me to say but if you look at it traditionally and historically, I really believe that’s where we need to be,” Bailey said.

He said Seal Beach was falling behind because the state had constantly raised the minimum wage in the last five years.

Public Works Director Iris Lee said she wanted to highlight the state of her department. According to Lee, Public Works had a number of vacancies. She also said Public Works said a quarter of their staff was gone at any one time.

On the engineering side of Public Works, she said one person was working on inter-agency coordination and Lee was working on the capital improvement side.

Lee, who was only recently promoted to permanently fill the Public Works director position, said they had just recently recruited her replacement in engineering.

Lee said they don’t have leadership at the City Yard, either.

Lee said she was splitting her time between the City Yard and the engineering side.

She described herself as sitting at the City Yard and “cloning” herself as best she can.

She went over the disciplines covered by her department: in addition to the City Yard, Public Works also has a utility side, a maintenance side, and the Public Works Department runs a business side for water and sewer services.

Lee described these as health and safety issues. “And I do want to stress that we need proper oversight in that area and we should not delay on that anymore,” Lee said.

“So for the department, for the city, for our citizens, you do need to fill those vacancies,” Lee said.

District Five Councilman Nathan Steele asked if staff was proceeding on the hiring for those position right now. “You’re not waiting for us to say go get them, right?”

“We have recently recruited my former position as a deputy Public Works director/city engineer,” Lee said.

“However, we are looking to optimize these vacancies through a reorganization plan, if possible, and utilize those positions and vacancies to cover more and do more for the city,” Lee said.

“So we are in the transition stage,” Lee said.

Assistant City Manager Gallegos said right now, Seal Beach had 11 active recruitments and one full-time human resources person. He said Seal Beach has two women in HR, but they are working on other projects for city management.

City Clerk Gloria Harper said she wanted to echo what her colleagues have said.

Harper said her office had 2.5 people. She said they were doing the work of larger cities.

She said Deputy City Clerk Dana Engstrom had been with Seal Beach for 15 years or so and she has quite a lot of knowledge.

Harper said other cities are paying more for a deputy city clerk.

Community Development Director Alexa Smittle said 10 years ago, they had half the volume of planning applications that the department has now, but she has the same number of people.

Smittle said they were having the same challenges with part-timers who could make more at Starbucks.

“It really is a double edged sword because we know what the needs are,” said City Manager Ingram.

“But—and we’ve had this discussion, and our team has—we can’t afford to continue to give increases every year,” Ingram said.

“And I’m just talking cost of living increases,” Ingram said.

She said she was talking about retention of those who should be reclassified, and then talk about new staffing.

Ingram said it wasn’t feasible, yet the city can’t ignore the fact that they need more staffing.

Later, Ingram suggested seeking council consensus on an organizational assessment.