Friday, July 22, 2011

To raise or not to raise?

Budget assumptions include raises for county employees

Express Staff Writer

In the face of dropping revenues and rising budget requests, Blaine County commissioners are struggling with whether to approve a $185,000 proposal to raise employee salaries.

"We have a lot of great employees, and it's time to recognize them," said Susan Potucek, human resources generalist for the county, during a meeting Wednesday. "It's critical for the county to attract, motivate and retain our employees.

She said higher salaries are the best way to accomplish those goals.

The main justification for the raises is that based on the county salary schedule, about 48 employees are not being paid according to their level of experience, time with the county and level of responsibility.

Potucek's minimum request from the county was to bump these employees up to what she called "equitable" pay, which would cost the county about $93,000.

"Some employees have had to take on extra duties as we haven't replaced personnel," she said. "Some of our employees haven't seen an increase in wage since 2008."

The remainder of the request, roughly $92,000, would allow an across-the-board 1 percent salary increase for all 176 county employees.

County Administrator Derek Voss said the increase is more than justified considering the rate of inflation since the last across-the-board county wage increase in October 2008. Inflation is up 3 percent from last year, he said, and is roughly 5 to 7 percent since wages were frozen.

"This is something that is actually exceeding our ability to meet it," he said. "Inflation is out-chasing anything we are even considering."

Commissioner Angenie McCleary said she supported the 1 percent increase.

"We're not even talking about true cost of living increases," she said. "We can't even put that on the table."

This adjustment would raise the median county wage, $20.45 an hour, to $20.65 an hour. County commissioners would receive a roughly $584 raise, while the Blaine County Sheriff would receive $887 more per year.

Voss said those increases are justified in part by the level at which Blaine County salaries compare to those in other counties.

The average commissioner salary in Ada, Canyon, Kootenai, Twin Falls and Valley counties is $66,735 a year. Blaine County commissioner salaries come in at $54,885 or 82 percent of regional average. Most elected officials come in at 108 to 110 percent of average, but Voss said the cost-of-living differential in Blaine County should place wages in the 118 percent range.

"I think this is a legacy that is being retained by the board for primarily political reasons," Voss said during a budget workshop Wednesday. "You are at the lowest end of the range, and in fact you are living at one of the highest [cost] places in the state."

McCleary said that, eventually, not increasing employee wages would result in negative impacts on county services as employees become less motivated or even leave for higher-paying jobs.

"You can't cut forever," she said. "We run some real risk by cutting expenses. In a service organization, which the county most certainly is, there is no better way to accomplish our strategic priorities than by employee compensation."

Potucek said that according to the American Management Association, replacing an employee costs an additional 30 percent of that person's salary. The costs mostly stem from lost productivity and time needed to train the replacement.

"I understand it's a tough market out there," she said. "But if we don't have a competitive wage, we're going to lose some great employees."

No decision on the wage increase was made Wednesday, as tentative budgets will not be set until Aug. 1. However, the commissioners asked County Clerk JoLynn Drage to include the full raises in the budget assumptions for Thursday's workshops, citing increases as inevitable.

"Believe me, I understand as well or better than anyone in this room the political context of this conversation," said Commissioner Larry Schoen. "[But] at some point, salaries are going to have to increase."

Katherine Wutz:

Blaine County salaries in (fiscal year 2011):

Assessor: $76,204

Clerk: $76,204

Commissioner: $54,885

Coroner: $22,962

Prosecuting attorney: $114,876

Sheriff: $88,159

Treasurer: $76,204

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