Wage increase OK’d for county workers

| June 30, 2020 8:19 AM

The board of commissioners approved a 3.5 percent cost of living pay increase for county employees in the coming fiscal year, but directed department heads to find room in their budgets for the raise.

Public sector employees earn about $43,200 a year on average, according County Administrator Patrick McFadden. The 3.5 increase, slightly above the rate of inflation, represents a roughly $1,512 pay increase on average.

Reiterating his stance when the county’s compensation board reviewed elected officials’ salaries earlier this month, McFadden asked commissioners to keep cost of living increases pegged to inflation and job duties rather than available revenue.

County employees received slight cost of living increases in 2011, 2013, 2017 before receiving slightly larger bumps for fiscal years 2019 and 2020. They went without increases in 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018, according to McFadden’s June 24 presentation to the board of commissioners.

All three county commissioners expressed support for employee raises in theory. The problem, they said, was the associated $163,296 drain on county coffers.

Adding a rub, the compensation board, which includes all three commissioners, voted the week prior to give elected officials a 2.5 percent cost of living increase.

The hotly debated decision ultimately earned support as a way to grant Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office deputies a wage bump. Deputies’ salaries are tied to the sheriff’s, and that position only sees a cost of living increase when elected officials receive a raise.

Deputies receive a 1 percent increase each year by statute. The cost of living increase is on top of that adjustment.

County Commissioner Mark Peck (D-1) cast the sole dissenting vote on June 17. He said at the time that he did it on principle — that elected officials should not see a pay raise — but added that he supported an increase for sheriff’s deputies.

Peck reiterated his position last week, but worried that the increase, coupled with higher insurance costs, could put a strain on the county’s budget.

“For me, bottom line, I support more money for the employees. I didn’t support more money for the elected officials,” he said during the June 24 meeting. “Obviously, the question is: Is there [money available] because insurance went up?”

McFadden took issue with the state budget process, saying it complicated the problem. Localities are required to craft budget proposals and make decisions on matters like compensation before they learn what to expect in revenue.

Approved pay increases cannot be tweaked after revenue information comes down from Helena.

“Once you give someone a wage, you can’t take it away from them,” said Dallas Bowe, county human resource director. “That’s what you’ve granted them.”

County Commissioner Jerry Bennett (D-2) said the system required local officials to become prognosticators.

“[The] problem lies in long term stability,” he said. “If we entered another 2008 type recession, you can’t drop people’s pay. You almost have to shine up a crystal ball.”

Peck offered a similar analysis.

“If we could print money like the federal government or just run a huge deficit and not worry about it, it wouldn’t be a huge issue,” he said. “But we have to pay for everything we do.”

Peck argued that requiring department heads to dig into their budgets and find money to offset increases was the best solution given the uncertainty. He instructed McFadden to comb through budget proposals to make sure department heads were not allocating dollars toward non-expenses.

It’s happened in the past, he said.

“They were budgeting for things like electricity, which was being centrally paid,” Peck said. “To be responsible, you ask for what you need. And spend it. You don’t ask for a bunch more and then pat yourself on the back when you don’t spend it at the end of the year. Because that money still comes from taxpayers.”

Unnecessary expenses aside, Peck said he preferred trimming operations to denying employees a cost of living increase.

“Philosophically, if we have to spend money, I would rather spend it on employees and cut operationally,” he said.

Peck made the motion to grant the cost of living increase. County Commissioner Josh Letcher (D-3) offered a second. The trio voted unanimously in favor of the proposal.