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County approves wage increases

by Tim Tedeschi - ttedeschi@chronicle-tribune.com

Grant County Council approved a $1,800 raise in 2020 for the majority of the county’s non-union employees at a special session focused on the budget Wednesday night.

Following a lengthy discussion, council voted 6-0 for the wage increase, with Councilman Jonathan Perez begrudgingly stating he wished it was more as he voted yes. Councilman Michael Conner was absent from the meeting.

The increase will affect all employees except those in the union, council itself, probation department employees who already receive state-mandated raises and members of the highway department who received a 3 percent raise in July.

Council then approved a $1,000 raise for the highway department employees who’ve already received raises. 

According to council President Shane Middlesworth, the last time all county employees received a raise was four years ago.

The $1,800 per employee figure was a compromise first floated by Middlesworth and formally moved by Councilman Mike Roorbach after Councilman Mark Leming proposed a $1,500 flat rate increase and Perez advocated for a minimum increase of $2,000.

Perez said he had researched the current county salary ordinance and found 27 employees, or nearly 9 percent, currently earn a salary below the national poverty line for a family of four.

Leming countered that looking at salaries is not the whole picture, stating the county provides a $21,300 contribution toward health insurance for each employee and other benefits including vacation time, sick days and retirement contributions.

“That’s black and white and the real world is gray,” Perez responded. “We are one of the largest employers in the county, and we sit here and talk about jobs and asking people to have better rates. I think as one of those leaders ourselves we should put our money where our mouth is too.”

Auditor Jim McWhirt told council the $1,800 raises would cost approximately $600,000 of additional appropriations to the general fund, which would project the county’s operating balance at the end of 2020 to be a little less than $2 million.

Middlesworth had expressed a hope to have an operating balance closer to $3 million to keep the county in the black throughout the year, but Roorbach said he thought that number was arbitrary. Several council members said they were comfortable with the balance hovering closer to $2 million instead.

Before council voted on the raises, County Clerk Pam Harris and Recorder Kathy Foy both expressed concern that the raises were not a fair distribution considering members of their departments doing similar tasks as other departments receive significantly less wages.

Harris noted that some of her employees within the department doing the exact same job receive different salaries because some fall under the legal department and others fall under Superior Court 3. She asked council that the $1,800 apportioned for her salary increase instead be distributed to the Superior Court 3 employees to make the difference not as severe.

“I would just like to throw that out there that we give them just a little bit more because we really can’t afford -- I can’t afford to lose these ladies,” Harris said. “They’re amazing, they do an amazing job for the county, for the citizens, and they make me look good every day.”

Foy said her chief deputy and first deputy have the lowest salaries out of the comparable positions in other county departments. She also said she would prefer her $1,800 raise be distributed amongst her staff rather than added to her salary.

Roorbach said the discrepancy in pay between departments has been an ongoing issue for years and hopes the newly-created position of a HR coordinator within the commissioners’ office can help set across-the-board standards. Council approved an appropriation of up to a $52,000 salary for the new coordinator position earlier in the meeting.

“It’s long overdue. We need some advice and input on that,” he said. “I don’t have a solution tonight for your dilemma, but I’m hoping someday we will and that it would involve this new HR position and working with the commissioners.”

McWhirt told council the $1,800 raise would equate to around a 5 percent pay increase for most county workers, and council subsequently approved a 5 percent increase in part-time and overtime wage rates.

Specifically, council approved an increase in EMT basic employee salary appropriations from $140,138 to $147,200. Hourly wage rates for ambulance drivers increased from $9.25 to $9.71, which is less than the requested $10.50, while the hourly rate for certified EMT basic employees raised from $10.25 to $10.76, which is less than the requested $13.

Before voting on the EMT salaries, Tyler Bundrick, assistant fire chief at Swayzee Volunteer Fire Department, and Mill Township Fire Department Chief Virgil Hall told council they believed EMS workers deserved more than the 5 percent raise.

“Your wage increase will bring each employee to $9.71, so you’re telling me I can go work at McDonald’s and make more than an EMT basic employee?” Bundrick said. “These people are dealing with people’s lives. They respond at all times of the day.”

“Think about that, truthfully, when you put your head on the pillow and go to sleep and think, you’re giving EMS 9 bucks an hour?” Hall added. “Just think about it.”

Council voted 5-1 to approve the EMS appropriations with Perez being the lone dissenting vote.

Earlier in the meeting, council approved a 5 percent salary increase to $36,820 for the emergency management agency director in 2020. Outgoing Director Bruce Bender had requested an increase from $35,067 to $45,000 due to the fact that the state reimburses 50 percent of the salary amount.

Bender reiterated that the increase to $45,000 would not cost council any more money due to the 50 percent state match and noted the responsibilities of the job have increased significantly.

“Right now you’re getting back $17,500 every year. If he gets paid $45,000, you’re going to get back $22,500. You’re only budgeting 35,000,” Bender said. “The only time the county would spend more money would be if you gave him $70,000 or more. No, it’s not right.”

Council voted 4-2 to set the EMA director salary at $36,820, with Perez and Councilman Frank Hix voting no.

Final adoption of the 2020 budget is scheduled for Oct. 16.