Saturday, February 5th, 2011

County wage freeze breached

Commissioners threaten to reduce the budgets of violators

By Shelley Grieshop
Mercer County commissioners are contemplating a course of action after several department heads gave their employees raises during the current countywide wage freeze.
At least six of the 26 county agencies that receive money from the county's general fund have padded employees pockets this year with raises averaging 1.5 percent to 8.98 percent. The highest raises - more than 22 percent - were given to two employees in the county auditor's office, according to data obtained from the commissioner's office.
The elected officials who head the departments did not get raises; their salaries are set by the state.
County commissioners in December asked all departments to forgo raises for the second consecutive year to help the county remain fiscally sound. Commissioner Bob Nuding said finding out their guidelines weren't followed was "disappointing."
"It boils down to fairness," he said, adding the action has created controversy among all departments.
The agencies identified so far for handing out raises include the health department, board of elections, county home, prosecutor's office, probate/juvenile court and the auditor's office.
In October, commissioners announced they would allow a 1.5 percent raise in 2011 for the approximately 270 county workers. But by December, they rescinded the measure after the county's financial forecast included a 11.76 percent drop in revenue and a decrease in state funds.
County employee salaries are set by the elected officials who run each department. Commissioners annually allocate how much money each department will get after meetings with department heads. No departments discussed giving raises last fall, commissioners said.
Because each department has its own unique cash flow system, commissioners didn't immediately notice that raises were given, they said. Some departments utilized excess funds in their salary accounts or took money from other revenue sources, commissioners explained.
Although they weren't happy, commissioners took no action in December when the health board approved salary increases averaging 2.39 percent. The agency receives just 22 percent of its operating costs from the county's general fund.
But two weeks ago, when the board of elections gave raises averaging 7.05 percent, commissioners reduced the department's 2011 appropriations by an equivalent amount - $7,500.
Commissioner Jerry Laffin said the board planned to do the same thing for each department that failed to follow their direction but tabled the motion at a meeting this week. Instead, they opted to hold meetings with each agency leader before taking further action.
All the departments under fire received letters from the commissioners scolding them and threatening to reduce their 2011 funds.
"Our Mercer County compensation plan provides a tool to evaluate job positions and reward applicable employees, but ONLY when funds are available," the template-style letters stated.
The letters also noted: "Actions that may be portrayed as inappropriate management of funds will jeopardize Mercer County's ability to seek additional revenue from our constituents. As individual actions are also scrutinized by other county offices, it shatters county employees' desire to work as a team."
Several department heads told The Daily Standard they were disappointed with the manner commissioners handled the situation. County auditor Mark Giesige and health department administrator Dale Palmer said receiving a letter or e-mail about the issue - before given the opportunity for a face-to-face meeting - was offensive.
Giesige said the raises he gave his 11-member staff was to compensate for their increased workload due to the loss of 3 1/2 employees who weren't replaced. He cut 6 percent from his budget and continues to utilize and seek out cost-cutting measures, he said.
"I cut my budget and was still able to do this," Giesige said. "So I'm supposed to be penalized for saving the county money. How is that fair to my employees?"
He also noted that most of his employees still are at the low end of their pay scale, according to calculations by a wage analysis company the commissioners requested he use to set salaries.
Giesige pointed out that commissioners recently gave pay raises to two county maintenance workers.
Commissioners justified the action saying one of the employees was promoted to a supervisor classification after another worker retired. Raises can be authorized for job advancement that includes a change in job title, commissioners stated.
The second maintenance worker was given a raise after obtaining two license certifications; it reportedly was an agreement penned with commissioners when the worker was hired in 2009.
Giesige, who is retiring from his post in March, said it's extremely upsetting to be accused of acting irresponsible with county funds.
"I've given 18 years to this county and tried very hard to be fiscally responsible," he added.
County Prosecutor Andy Hinders said he distributed 1.5 percent raises to his four-member staff after learning the commissioners had given raises to the maintenance workers.
He called the matter "confusing."
Commissioners say the raises Hinders distributed actually average 2.39 percent due to a higher amount given to one of his clerks.
Probate/juvenile court judge Mary Pat Zitter told the newspaper she also gave higher wages to her staff to compensate for increased workloads due to unfilled positions.
"We have statutory duties that we have to make sure get done," she said.
Zitter, who gave across-the-board 1.5 percent increases, said she'll cooperate with commissioners to settle the matter.
"We're all in this boat together," she added.
Toni Slusser of the board of elections said the board and office staff weren't aware of the wage freeze at the time the raises were approved. She, too, questioned recent actions by the commissioners.
"Commissioners approved putting the (Mercer County) Developmental Disabilities levy on the May ballot. Because it's the only countywide issue, it will cost the county $50,000," she said, adding they could have waited until November's general election to reduce the cost.
Jerry Moeder, superintendent of the county home, gave 2 percent wage increases to employees. Some staff salaries were increased to meet minimum wage standards.
County auditor Tammy Barger said she complied with the commissioners request and didn't hand out raises, but has taken heat for it from her employees.
"I would have loved to do it, absolutely ... Has my staff worked hard? Absolutely. But I have to be a team player," she said.
Voicing the most displeasure with the situation is sheriff Jeff Grey. After taking a 10 percent budget cut last year and returning $125,000 to the general fund in unused appropriations, he's outraged. The money he saved the county is being spent on raises for other departments, he said.
He feels the actions of the other agencies is disrespectful to the commissioners and could negatively impact everyone.
"I will really be upset if I am forced to lay off deputies because of this. We already have lost six patrol deputies due to cuts and I have followed the commissioners direction," he said. "I know employees work hard and I am sure they aren't over-paid in any county office, but can the county afford this? We are spending our citizens money; we need to watch it closely. This is not Washington, D.C."
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