This story has been updated.
Vernon’s municipal workforce was raided twice last year. The town lost a building official to Coventry and a planning specialist to Tolland.
This caused Vernon to examine and enhance its overall salary and benefit structure, said town administrator Michael Purcaro, which included implementing the increasingly popular four-day work week. The changes enticed both workers to return to Vernon. Coventry then hired an assistant building official from Manchester as its building official, only to lose him to Groton.
This bureaucratic shell game goes on all the time, for the simple reason that there aren’t enough building officials or other specialists to go around.
“There is a great shortage in the technical areas,” said recently retired Coventry town manager John Elsesser.
The shortage “has created this fiercely competitive work environment between towns — and the state as well,” said Purcaro.
Recent years have been difficult for much of the public sector workforce. The military has been challenged to meet its recruiting goals. The state saw thousands of workers retire in 2021-22.
What hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention is the shortage of town hall workers, the assessors, zoning specialists, planners and others who deliver many of the services that town governments exist to provide.
For example, the Capitol Region Council of Governments (CRCOG) surveyed its member towns last year on their present or anticipated staffing needs. Of the 22 tows that responded, 11 cited the need for economic development specialists; 10 for code enforcement officers (e.g., zoning); nine for assessors; eight for animal control, building inspection and capital project administration; seven for engineering; six for planning; five for information technology; and so forth.
There is a plan afoot to solve the problem because, as Matt Hart, CRCOG’s executive director put it, ”towns poaching off one another is not sustainable.” His organization is one of several working on the problem. They hope to create a pipeline that will bring more building officials — sometimes called building inspectors — into the workforce and in the process create a model that can be used by other municipal professions.
From August 2021 to July 2022, 5,607 state workers retired, according to the state Comptroller’s office. The average over the past decade has been 2,130 retirements a year.
The big wave of retirements was driven in part by an aging workforce and also by a change in the pension formula that went into effect on July 1, 2022.
State recruiters responded aggressively. More than half of state workers, 31,859 of 59,195, are employed by Executive Branch agencies, according to state Department of Administrative Services spokesman John McKay. His department provides human resource services, including recruiting, to more than three dozen of those departments, essentially all but the courts, colleges and General Assembly.
In FY 21-22 and FY 22-23, 4,453 employees of those agencies retired. Aided by a law streamlining the state hiring process, agency recruiters used television advertising, job fairs at colleges and high schools, as well as outreach to veterans, persons with disabilities and others, to make people aware of state careers and attract qualified candidates.
In FY 21-22 and FY 22-23, McKay reported, DAS-served agencies brought 11,631 outside hires to fill the retiree and other vacancies, as well as some new positions.
The employment level in the DAS-served agencies, about 32,000, is back where it was in 2016, said DAS deputy commissioner Nicholas Hermes in an online interview. As of the summer, there were about 6,000 vacancies in DAS agencies; Hermes said this was the normal churn.
Tougher for towns
Most towns simply do not have the resources to match the state’s high-powered recruiting efforts and rely heavily on online recruiting. The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities’ job board is a popular option (if you are keeping score, Coventry is again advertising for a building official); and each profession’s state association also posts job openings (see, for example, here.)
While these are helpful, especially to people already in the professions, towns are still short of technical workers. Thus they rely on poaching, overtime, retirees, part-timers from other towns and consultants.
One consultancy is the Vernon-based firm Tyche Planning & Policy Group, Inc, founded by former town planners John Guszkowski and Mike D’Amato. Along with drafting various plans and regulations, they serve as consultants or temporary town officials in more than 20 towns. At one point this summer, Guszkowski was serving as the consulting planner in Essex, Columbia, Andover, Voluntown and Hampton, the zoning enforcement officer in Chester, Deep River and Portland and the economic development coordinator in Willington.
The firm has a four full-time staffers and one part-timer. The name comes from the Greek goddess of the luck and fortune of cities. As most municipal officials would understand, Tyche was much revered.
Development cannot happen without the work of several town officials, even small projects in small towns such as Coventry. Elsesser referenced the recent development of a Cumberland Farms gas station and a dental office, both on Route 44, as examples.
Development is guided by a master plan of development, which must be updated every 10 years. The plan includes zoning and wetland maps.
When a developer comes in with a plan, the town pulls together its development team, the zoning and wetlands officials, town engineer and building official, for a plan review meeting. If the plan needs a zoning exception or wetlands approval it will go to the appropriate commissions. The building official makes sure the plan meets the state building code.
“Most developers know what a town expects,” said Elsesser.
There are several inspections during construction, he said. The town planner checks such things as drainage or curb cuts, the wetlands official makes sure that wetlands are protected. Then the assessor, using comparables already on the grand list, assigns a value to the property for tax purposes. Then on to the next project.
Another way towns deal with shortages, or simply increase efficiency, is to share services. For example, Bolton and Willington go halfsies on an assessor, and Bolton shares its two building officials with Willington, Andover and Ashford. The three towns pay Bolton quarterly for the hours the officials work in their towns, said Bolton town administrator Jim Rupert, himself a former building official.
The state’s councils of government, particularly in the Capitol and Northeast regions, have been developing regional service-sharing programs for three decades or more. In some parts of the state, these include programs and services in bulk purchasing, engineering, land use, paramedic, GIS, animal shelters, online permitting, economic development and some others.
The Norwich-based Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments pushed the ball further down the field when it hired a building official and a zoning enforcement officer earlier this year. Each is serving four towns in the region. This was accomplished with a $395,000 grant from the state’s Regional Performance Incentive Program. The cost of the positions will shift to the towns over the next four years, said executive director Amanda Kennedy. “It’s working really well — great,” she reported.
CRCOG is working on a similar program, said Hart, looking to hire a building official as well an assessor and animal control officer for member towns that want the services.
Another working example of regional service sharing are the state’s health districts. In addition to 34 independent municipal health departments, the state has 20 regional health districts that cover from two to 20 towns. The districts employ, among others, sanitarians who inspect food service establishments and other facilities, investigate a variety of environmental health complaints ranging from improper garbage or sewage disposal to rodent and insect infestation, and perform a number of other public health duties.
Alas, there is shortage of sanitarians. Robert L. Miller, health director of the 10-town, Mansfield-based Eastern Highlands Health District, said there is “a deficit” of qualified and credentialed sanitarians, “so local public health agencies have been struggling to come up with strategies to recruit and retain people.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a “significant amount of poaching of qualified professionals” going on; indeed Miller has lost three sanitarians in the past four years. He has just started a program in which sanitarians get a salary increase when they reach each level of training and certification, e.g., food handling, lead abatement and subsurface sewage disposal.
Sometimes local charter provisions or conflicting union contracts inhibit towns’ abilities to share services. The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities proposed legislation to correct these problems in the last legislative session. It didn’t pass but will be reintroduced in 2024, said executive director Joe DeLong.
Signs of change
Since many public sector jobs involve public health and safety — assuming we don’t want tainted food or buildings that fall down — it’s not clear why the shortages haven’t drawn more attention or action.
Perhaps people thought “government would always take care of itself,” Hart speculated.
Communication appears to be another issue. “We haven’t done a good job of marketing ourselves,” said Elsesser. He said many younger people aren’t aware that these are good jobs and careers, well paid (though it may be a bit of an outlier, Groton recently advertised for a building official giving a salary range of $120,000 to $130,000) with good benefits.
“They are more problem solvers than regulators,” said Elsesser. “They make a difference in their communities.”
In any event, the recent impetus to solve the problem came from the CRCOG member survey and two other initiatives.
First, the legislature passed a law in 2022 directing DAS to gather experts and study ways to increase the supply of building officials, including community college courses and reciprocal licensure with other jurisdictions. It also calls for a pilot program that would provide building services on a regional basis. The law was championed by then-State Rep. Christine Goupil, who said in an interview that as first selectwoman of Clinton, she had difficulty hiring building officials.
The group’s study was released in January. It acknowledges “municipalities are experiencing severe difficulties filling vacant building official positions” and recommends, among other things, that officials pursue apprenticeship or internship programs for prospective building officials.
Also, the UConn School of Public Policy hosted a National Academy of Public Administration forum in November at the Hartford Public Library on public sector employment, featuring local and national experts. After the session, several of the local participating entities — CRCOG, CCM, UConn, DAS, the nonprofit Capital Workforce Partners and the state Department of Education — formed an ad hoc task force to work on enhancing employment in the municipal, state and K-12 arenas.
On the local level, the group, in tandem with DAS, is working on an apprenticeship program for building officials. One thrust is to rebalance the requirements for experience and training.
At present, there is a high premium on experience. State law requires five years’ of experience in the construction industry before someone can become a building official, three years for an assistant building official. Many building officials, not surprisingly, are former contractors.
But this has proven an unreliable pipeline, especially in period of busy construction. How to change it?
Hart said towns “are always looking for experience; very few jobs are open to people off the street. We are increasingly realizing that we need to take people with limited experience and invest in them. Adapt as the private sector has. It is a risk, but there can be a silver lining — it gives us an opportunity to diversify these professions.”
He noted that towns invest in new public safety officers by sending them to the police and fire academies. But at present there is no equivalent program for building officials, assessors or other specialists. If all goes according to plan, that will change.
Hart said he and his colleagues hope to have a pilot program — apprenticeship or hybrid college-apprenticeship — ready to go next year. One option, he said, is for his organization to hire an apprenticeship coordinator to work with member towns. An advantage for the prospective apprentices is that they earn while they learn.
Everyone appears to be onboard and rowing in the same direction. “We believe that creating pipelines with local high schools and community colleges can encourage younger people to enter municipal professions that provide job security and good union benefits,” said Shawn Holloway, secretary of AFSCME Local 1716.
AFSCME recently sponsored a “Staff the Front Lines” job fair at Hartford’s Dunkin’ Park, featuring Gov. Ned Lamont, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin and other officials.
DAS Commissioner Michelle Gilman said other aspects of the building official initiative such as reciprocal licensure with other states are in “various stages of implementation.” But the apprenticeship program is front and center. “We really want to create an apprenticeship program that towns can take advantage of. We are passionate about this.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the town of Norwich advertised an opening for a building official at a salary range of $120,000 to $130,000. The position was in Groton, not Norwich.
This reporting was made possible, in part, through generous support from Robert W. Fiondella and the Fiondella Family Trust.