Tuesday, March 8th, 2011
By Shelley Grieshop
Pay change may cost county more
  Some pay raises given to Mercer County employees in recent months were rescinded by department heads after commissioners were upset with the action. Now a payroll change may have some workers bringing home more money than the original increase.
In December, commissioners told elected and appointed officials of all 26 departments to nix raises in 2011 - for the second consecutive year - due to a projected loss of $800,000 in state funding and other economic uncertainties. At least six departments ignored the request.
"I don't know what was their motive," commissioner Jerry Laffin said.
Some department heads argued their employees deserved proper compensation for working hard, Laffin added.
County prosecutor Andy Hinders distributed an average of 2.39 percent in raises to his four-member staff in January but recently rescinded them. At the recommendation of commissioners, he changed the status of three of the four employees from salary to hourly - a change that is expected to cost the county more, he said.
"During my conversations with the commission, I was specifically advised ... that they would prefer payment of overtime instead of salary increases," Hinders said in a written statement to the newspaper. "This was their position even when it was apparent that this conversation may result in an increase in the wage budget of this office greater than that entailed by the originally-proposed salary increases."
Hinders could not estimate how much his salary budget may increase this year.
Commissioners confirmed the wage discussion with Hinders, but offered no explanation.
Each county department decides how many hours their full-time employees work. Most county employees work 33 1/2 hours. Workers must be on the clock a minimum of 25 hours per week to be eligible for benefits such as insurance, according to county policy.
Time and a half is only paid to hourly employees who clock more than 40 hours per week.
Hinders said his staff periodically works extended hours (beyond their previous salaried amount of 33 1/2 hours), and the conversion to hourly wages will enable him to approve the additional hours to complete the work.
He added that his staff has decreased from seven full-time employees to four full-time and one part-time employee and that his office is handling a greater number of cases as the county population increases.
Commissioners are still reviewing information received from county auditor Mark Giesige to justify an average of 8.98 percent in raises he gave to his workers. Two of Giesige's employees were given increases in excess of 22 percent, according to data from commissioners.
Giesige, in an earlier interview with the newspaper, said he chose to implement raises because his staff deserved compensation for an increased workload due to the loss of 3 1/2 employees. Giesige also noted he cut 6 percent from his budget for 2011.
In January, the county board of elections approved employee raises averaging 7.05 percent. However, the action was countered by commissioners with a reduction of the agencies appropriations by an equivalent amount - $7,500.
Juvenile/probate court Judge Mary Pat Zitter - who gave 1.5 percent salary increases to her 12 workers - returned wages to the 2010 status, commissioners said.
Also, various salary increases given in January to 19 workers at the county home were restored to last year's amounts except for employees whose pay previously did not meet minimum wage standards, they said.
Commissioners admit they hadn't closely monitored employee wages in the past but were disappointed to discover their direction was not followed. Wage increases were only to be given to workers who were promoted into a higher job classification.
Employee salaries are set at the discretion of each department head. Some wages are exclusively paid with money from the county's general fund; others utilize a combination of the general fund and dollars from service fees the departments collect.
Employees in two other departments - the county health department and the engineer's office - also netted raises and/or bonuses. However, those actions are not under fire because most or all funding for those departments is derived through fees they collect, not the county's general fund, commissioners explained.
To avoid such controversy in the future, commissioners said they will strive for better communication with each agency. They have begun seeking information to calculate the county's financial status for 2012. Two weeks ago, they distributed worksheets to all department heads and asked them to estimate their budget for next year based on a 10-12 percent cut of 2010 expenses.
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