Denver city government is five years into a hiring blitz. Can taxpayers afford it?

In a boom town full of growth industries, one of the most consistent job producers in Denver for five years running has been city government.

After a post-recession hiring blitz, Denver government offices have outgrown several city-owned office buildings, including downtown’s massive and modern Wellington E. Webb municipal building.

That expansion, which includes plans for more hiring next year, could end up increasing the municipal workforce by nearly one-fifth between 2012 and 2018, a Denver Post review has found.

As city finance officials have inked multiyear deals for private office space fronting Civic Center, the number of budgeted positions this year reached the equivalent of 12,445 full-time positions, including some temporary workers. Mayor Michael Hancock’s proposed $2 billion operating budget for 2018 would increase that total to 12,918.

Denver’s hiring spree has been no secret, with each year’s budget adding hundreds of new positions. Some have addressed crises, including a dangerous shortage of jail deputies. Others provided staff for new buildings the city has opened. Many more positions have been sprinkled across departments citywide, from core operations to self-sustaining entities such as Denver International Airport.

Hancock and his financial advisers say the hiring, while robust, has been targeted to respond to a multitude of needs in a fast-growing city that has increased its population by nearly a quarter in a decade.

Denver hiring - increase in jobs

They maintain that the spending on payroll — roughly $1.1 billion last year — is sustainable. Even so, chief financial officer Brendan Hanlon says the next recession still may require austerity because the city relies on sales and use taxes, which fluctuate with the economy, to pay for about half its core operations. (Property taxes cover 9 percent.)

But some outside observers question what they see as largesse.

“Denver just seems to be a place that, whenever some new thing comes along, (officials) never seem to say: ‘If you want to do B, let’s do less of A to pay for it,’ ” said Mike Krause, the director of the Local Colorado Project at the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute. “You can only do it so long before you have to pay the piper.”

Such disagreements often hinge on whether city leaders, in new ventures such as a recent 10-year, $150 million affordable-housing funding initiative, are straying beyond the proper role of city government.

Hancock and the council may have drawn the ire of conservatives — who are in short supply in liberal Denver — as they also have looked to expand the city’s involvement in transit, social problems and other issues. But they have been pushed to take action by a range of urban activists.

Initially, with voters’ approval, the city hiring surge reflected a reversal of a few years of belt-tightening during the Great Recession and its lingering aftermath, including employee furloughs.

And then, as Denver’s economy took off and a population boom took hold, officials continued hiring.

Starting last year, the city has looked across the street from the Webb building for more space. It has signed two multiyear, market-rate subleases, valued at $21.7 million, that will allow use of more than 92,000 square feet on three floors of The Denver Post building well into the next decade.

City recoups recessionary cuts — and then some

A full decade after the recession’s start, Denver has done far more than recoup its downturn losses, The Post found in its review of city finance data.