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The golden years 

Colorado Springs Utilities retirees are being paid millions for encore performances

Kelly Means retired as a Colorado Springs Utilities executive on Nov. 26, 2008, and in less than three months was back on the gravy train — this time as a consultant at 96 percent of his full-time pay rate.

After leaving his $200,000-plus-a-year job last year, Means returned and cost Utilities $43,371 at $95 an hour. Not bad for a guy on whose watch one cashier embezzled $435,000 over three years, while another worker stole customers' identity information before splitting town.

But Means' share amounts to a drop in a $5.8 million bucket. That's how much Utilities plans to spend in 2009 hiring 116 temporary workers, about half of them retirees, to help new hires acclimate, says Utilities spokesman Steve Berry.

This year's temp tab, about 3 percent of Utilities' total payroll, outpaces last year's $4.4 million by a third, largely because Utilities is seeing an exodus of retiring skilled workers.

"It's forcing us to bring new employees in to some technically oriented positions," Berry says.

Those employees, he says, need a boost with institutional knowledge and technical know-how. In 2008, between the retirees and others doing clerical, technology help desk, meter and mechanical work, Utilities had roughly 103 temps in the ranks at any given time. In 2008, temps worked about 134,000 hours for Utilities, which averages $32.84 per hour. This year's contract was increased, Berry says, because the completion of a 200-person layoff created a need "to bridge some gaps."

No formal complaints

Last year, Utilities hired all its temps through Manpower Inc., paying out $4.4 million. This year, Add Staff is raking in the aforementioned $5.8 million. There's no telling how much of that money goes to the companies' overhead; in Means' case, Add Staff has taken $20 of the $95 per hour.

That amounts to 21 percent, but Berry asserts that even at that rate, Utilities is getting a good deal.

"Absolutely it is wise policy to bring in temporary agency work rather than hiring an FTE [full-time equivalent]," Berry argues, referring to costs for recruitment and benefits.

"I can say with certainty that the administrative burden would override the comparative costs of going through a temporary agency. Additionally, there are numerous advantages to hiring a retiree on an as-needed basis. We can be much more judicious and only bring them on when absolutely needed."

Jerry Heimlicher, who left City Council this week, calls the temp cost "awfully high" and says it raises questions, among them: Did Utilities play a game, laying off people from jobs now filled by temps? Is rehiring retirees some kind of reward?

Councilman Randy Purvis wonders whether money could be saved by negotiating directly with workers, especially retirees, instead of going through a temp agency. While not disputing that temps can save money, Purvis says he expects Council to ask for more information about the temporary worker program "as we go through the budget and look for ways to save money and trim rates."

After being paid $205,650 a year as chief customer officer, Means returned in February as a "strategic planner." Berry contends Means' talents and 23 years with Utilities were crucial for such projects as the Southern Delivery System and budgeting.

The utility already pays full-timers to oversee SDS, the budget, environmental regulations and legislative mandates. But Berry says Means' advice was valuable "from a big-picture standpoint."

Means didn't have to compete for the job; Utilities CEO Jerry Forte simply told him to sign up at Add Staff and then told Add Staff to send him over, the same routine as for other rehired retirees. Forte declined to answer questions, instead asking Berry to speak on his behalf.

Means was unavailable for comment, but Berry says he started at 20 hours a week and has since cut back to one day a week. Berry dismisses reports that Means was phased out after several employees complained about the cozy arrangement.

"There were people who grumbled about it," Berry says, "but nothing was elevated to a formal complaint."

Ones that got away

Means' retirement gig at the city may be over, at least for now. Berry says an interim strategic planning manager has been chosen pending a search to fill the job permanently. It pays $76,211 to $113,402 a year.

Although destinationcrm.com, a Web site for a magazine about customer relations management, gave a glowing report on Means in a 2004 feature story, two bad actors got by him. Longtime cashier Donna Inzer embezzled $435,000 over three-plus years before being caught in February 2007 after a customer complaint. Utilities recovered most of the money through insurance; Inzer was sentenced to 90 days in jail and 14 years probation.

Four-year customer service worker Elizabeth Bischoff, who left in 2005, stole customers' addresses, Social Security numbers and bank account information. Arrested in Arizona, she pleaded guilty to identity theft and received 300 hours of public service and two years probation.

But those black marks didn't show up in a 2006 city audit, released in 2008, that stated Means' department "was accomplishing its goals and objectives in an economical, efficient and effective manner."

zubeck@csindy.com

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