Wednesday, February 9th, 2011
By Shelley Grieshop
Ruckus over raises continues
  A finance meeting Tuesday with top Mercer County officials ended in a debate about employee raises.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Sheriff Jeff Grey praised retiring auditor Mark Giesige for his long-term devotion to the county. Seconds later, he put Giesige and other department leaders on the hot seat for ignoring a request by commissioners to forgo giving raises to their workers this year.
"Can the county afford to give pay increases?" Grey asked board of commissioner chairman Bob Nuding, who led the meeting for elected and appointed officials.
Nuding answered no.
"If we could afford raises, gosh darn, we'd have put them in the budget," Nuding told the audience in the courthouse auditorium.
Commissioners in December told county department heads to nix wage increases for employees in 2011 - except for promotions and job title changes - to help the county remain in good fiscal shape. Commissioners allocate county funds to each department annually, and it was the second consecutive year such a request was made.
Although commissioners cannot mandate that each department adhere to a wage freeze, they hoped the agencies would follow their recommendation in solidarity, they said.
The message, however, wasn't well received by everyone. At least six department heads gave their employees raises. Commissioners reduced appropriations for one of the defying departments - the board of elections - in an amount equal to the raises distributed. Commissioners said they are contemplating action against the other departments.
Giesige, who approved staff-wide raises averaging 8.98 percent, defended his actions in a letter he read aloud at the meeting. He explained how he cut his budget 6 percent this year, saved the county thousands of dollars through cost-cutting measures and was still able to increase his employees' salaries.
He also explained that his underpaid staff inherited more work in recent years after four positions went unfilled.
"The workload had increased to such a degree that I could no longer have the staff shoulder it within their former pay classifications," Giesige wrote.
He continued by saying, "I regret any misunderstandings about this situation, but I feel strongly that our employees, who work hard in the service of the people of Mercer County, deserve to be justly compensated according to the scale that the county itself has established."
Giesige gave the letter and documents outlining his employees' expanded job duties to the commissioners for review.
Grey, who did not give raises to his staff, said he feels like he left his employees down by adhering to the wage freeze.
"If I show you that our (911 and Central Dispatch) call load has increased by 26 percent ... if I put together a letter like Mark did ... can the county afford to give all my guys raises?" he asked.
Nuding again said no.
"We have to live within our budget," he told Grey, noting that Giesige had helped calculate the fiscal forecast that resulted in the decision to implement the wage freeze.
Probate/juvenile court Judge Mary Pat Zitter suggested the commissioners hold more frequent meetings to help work out such issues, improve communication and promote "more interaction" between departments.
Following the meeting, Nuding told the newspaper that his priority remains fairness.
"We're trying to do what's fair to our employees and what's fair to our citizens," he said.
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