Even Boulder’s best-paid employees can’t find homes in the city

Photo by Tierra Mallorca on Unsplash

Friday, July 30, 2021

In an acknowledgement of just how out-of-reach home ownership has become in Boulder, top city officials may no longer be required to live within city limits. The shift comes as Boulder looks for its next attorney months after hiring a new city manager.

The city attorney search started in January, when Tom Carr announced his planned retirement. (Carr later accepted a position with Washington County, Oregon.) Only 12 people applied, versus more than 50 applicants for city manager.

City council last week decided to restart the recruiting process. As part of that, elected officials also agreed to be “flexible” with an existing requirement that the new hire reside in Boulder. Residency requirements for judges — which specified Boulder County, not the city, as acceptable — were relaxed the week before.

“Often, the most qualified candidates for a municipal court judge position will be those individuals with significant … experience, and not simply those individuals who reside in the area,” staff wrote in notes to council. “Allowing council to waive the requirement that the presiding and associate judges be Boulder County residents will broaden and diversify the pool of qualified applicants for any future such openings.”

Council members on Tuesday argued that the same logic applied to city attorney hopefuls.

“It’s preferable that they live in the city,” said councilman Mark Wallach, “but I don’t know that it’s such a benefit for the kinds of candidates we hope to get.”

Read a thread from Tuesday’s discussion

Added councilman Adam Swetlik, “Most of city staff doesn’t live in Boulder. Most of our workforce doesn’t live in Boulder. If that means finding the right candidate who lives a little outside of Boulder, that’s totally OK and I think sort of realistic at this point.”

From bad to horrible

Boulder’s median home price surpassed $1.55 million in April. The typical two-bedroom rents for $1,954, according to Apartment List.

The city’s top staffers — municipal judge, city attorney and city manager — are its best paid. Their salaries are subject to council approval and, therefore, public record. Rivera-Vandermyde was hired at a starting salary of $290,000. Carr retired with a reported salary of $229,406, plus benefits. Cooke’s 2019 salary — the last time adjustments were made, and therefore made public — was $174,193.

Read more about 2019 salary adjustments

There are homes on the market available to those income groups, said local realtor Ethan Shapiro — assuming buyers have a large enough down payment and don’t have too much debt — but income isn’t the only factor. Competition in that price range is intense. Multiple offers over the asking price are common, as are all-cash purchases.

Those trends have all been exacerbated by the pandemic, with many people now having the ability to work from anywhere.

“It’s usually pretty bad,” Shapiro said, “but now in particular is horrible.”

Attempt No. 2

Council’s decision wasn’t all about housing.

I think that’s a big part of it,” said Mayor Sam Weaver. “If people are moving here from out of state or out of the Front Range, they might have a really hard time buying here.”

Particularly with a city attorney, a Colorado-based hire can be valuable because they are familiar with the state’s laws. Boulder was looking for a “plug-and-play” candidate; that is, someone who needed less time and effort to get up to speed.

“What if we get somebody from nearby who is perfectly happy (living) where they are?” Weaver said. “They might be a great professional fit for Boulder.”

The city’s first search was focused on trying to find Colorado candidates. Human Resources Director Jen Sprinkle said the second attempt will be broader and more national.

“The idea is to think about cities with similar council agendas and community engagement to Boulder,” Sprinkle said Tuesday. “If we do a broad sourcing strategy, we’ll cast a wider net.”

Finalists should be named by September 21, with a council vote on the ultimate hire scheduled for Oct. 5.

While there’s now more wiggle room in where the city attorney resides, Weaver believes there’s still benefit to having them in Boulder.

“It’s more important we get a really good person in that position than they live here,” he said on Thursday. “But I certainly see the value of the people making decisions having to live with the consequence of their decisions.”

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle

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