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The Napa City Council agreed Tuesday to offer incentives to attract key employees.

Coping with an aging work force, costly housing and rock-bottom jobless rates, Napa will put more incentives on the table for some new recruits.

The City Council on Tuesday approved cash incentives as high as $15,000 for people accepting law enforcement, engineering and other jobs that have become increasingly hard to fill. The recruitment program also will offer up to $15,000 toward moving and temporary housing expenses, and let new Napa hires carry over as much of two weeks of vacation time from their old jobs to their new city posts.

Expanded benefits will be offered to those with “professional skills, knowledge and abilities” in positions Napa has failed to fill in the past, or has filled only after multiple recruitment attempts. A new worker will be eligible for multiple benefits, but their exact share of incentives will be decided by the city manager.

Napa is stepping up its new-hire benefits at a time when California’s unemployment rate of about 4 percent is stiffening the competition among governments and businesses over a tight labor pool. The city also faces other challenges especially acute for local governments, according to Napa leaders – including a growing number of employees reaching the age when they can draw pensions from the state Public Employees’ Retirement System.

Twenty-four percent of the city staff – 113 workers in all – is eligible for CalPERS retirement benefits, and that share is expected to reach 35 percent in three years and 40 percent by 2024, Human Resources Director Jennifer Brizel told the council.

Furthermore, some would-be recruits have stayed away from Napa’s job openings for fear of downgraded pension benefits, she added. A state pension reform that took effect in 2013 lowered payments and raised the retirement age for new hires, leading some to avoid applying for Napa vacancies in favor of retaining pension benefits earned at their current government posts – or to seek higher pay and benefits in the private sector instead, said Brizel.

Between pension concerns and inflated living costs, “people are realizing they can’t do it, that they can’t move to the city of Napa,” she told council members.

Assistance with moving costs is meant to soften the disadvantage Napa faces due to its historically white-hot housing market, where median home values have topped $650,000, rental vacancies have sunk below 2 percent and more than half of Californians in a February survey were open to leaving the state in search of cheaper housing.

The new incentives will not increase overall spending in Napa’s current two-year budget, with funds to be drawn from unpaid salaries already allotted to vacant positions, Brizel said.

Two speakers from Napa’s employee ranks were divided on the added inducements for future hires. Kendra Bruno, a city waste prevention specialist and member of the Napa City Employees Association – an affiliate of Service Employees International Union Local 1021 – decried boosting such incentives only for recruits and not for existing staff as “falling short of showing any concern for current employees and their ability to afford housing in Napa.”

But Aaron Medina of the Napa Police Officers Association pointed to stiff competition for workers – and the graying of Napa’s own work force – as forcing the city’s hand.

“I’ve been in law enforcement 22 years, and attitudes to becoming a police officer have changed, and the economy has changed,” he told the council. “We are definitely in need of assistance. We are in a situation where employees are going to retire.”

Councilmembers sought to assure city workers that sweetening job offers for newcomers would not rule out further steps to assist those already on the Napa payroll.

“I don’t think our work is over yet,” said Vice Mayor Scott Sedgley, who spent 30 years in the Napa Fire Department before his election in 2012. “To me this is a good first step for recruitment. I hear the SEIU people loud and clear, but this is not the end of the road.”

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You can reach Howard Yune at 707-256-2214 or hyune@napanews.com

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.