"If the city budget is tight, why did city employees recently receive raises?"

That's a question that came up during a Newton City Commission candidate forum. And while some employees did see an increase in their salaries, Lunda Asmani, assistant city manager for budget and finance, said using the term "raise" can be tricky because the pay increases were more of an adjustment designed to keep the city of Newton in line with the market.

Last year, Newton City Commissioners heard a report from the Austin Peters Group, which partnered with the city to perform a job classification and compensation study. The cities of Hesston, Park City and Valley Center, as well as Harvey County, preformed similar studies during the same time frame.

The study examined the job descriptions and salaries of various city employees, compared them to similar positions at other cities in the region, and recommended adjustments to the job descriptions and salaries. As part of the study, the Austin Peters Group evaluated the cityís approximately 200 staff positions through an intensive process that included interviewing all employees, reviewing job duties, conducting site visits and having employee meetings.

Becky Crowder, a representative from the Austin Peters Group, said at the time the city was about 75 cents an hour behind the market, and the firmís recommended pay ranges were designed to place the city in the middle of the market.

"The compensation study tried to level the playing field within the organization and compared to other organizations," Asmani said, reporting the net impact of the study was about $125,000. "... The challenge is, we don't operate in a vacuum. Because we don't operate in a vacuum, we need to operate within our geographic and economic area."

The departments most in need of adjustments were police, fire/EMS, water and wastewater. As jobs change and more training and new skills are required, the city has to compensate employees more, Asmani said.

For example, in the wastewater division, operators are required to receive more training and certification than they used to, and the job has become more complicated due to stricter state and federal guidelines. Additionally, organizations' increasing reliance on computers and other technology requires employees in a variety of departments to utilize different skills on the job.

"Just keeping up with those changes not only requires a different skill set ... but there's also a different requirement of services they're required to provide to citizens," he said.

Community members now have higher expectations of local government, and they want public services to be at the same level as the services they receive from the private sector. They expect the level of care they receive at the county health department to be equal to the level of care at a hospital.

"Citizens expect that, and employees have to respond," Asmani said.

He said to make sure it can retain employees, Newton has to pay close attention to other markets, such as Wichita and Hutchinson. Due to those cities' proximity to Newton, it's relatively easy for Newton residents to commute to those cities and seek employment there. It's similar to the way Newton Medical Center tries to keep wages in line with Wesley Medical Center or Via Christi in Wichita.

"If they don't, they're going to potentially lose employees," he said.

A related topic that came up at the candidate forum was City Manager Randy Riggs' salary. His contract was renewed for a salary of $125,000, up from $122,000 (the city manager's contract is renewed on an annual basis). Asmani said the salary increase is designed to keep Newton's city manager wages comparable to other, similarly-sized cities in the region.

According to Jenny Evans, director of human resources for the city of Derby, the salary for the Derby city manager for 2013 is $134,605. Nannette Pogue, finance director/city clerk for Dodge City, said their city manager (who also serves as the city attorney) receives $148,408 a year.