With truck drivers in big demand, hiring one for the Ellis County Road and Bridge Department isn’t easy, according to department director Bill Ring.

“We had an interview Friday that lasted four minutes,” said Ring. “The dollar figure came up right away.”

There are lots of interviews going on, he said, but they’re not getting a lot of applicants.

“There isn’t a large pool out there of unemployed people,” Ring said.

It doesn’t help that the hourly wage of $13.89 translates into $28,000 a year for a 40-hour week.

Probably the employee situation is going to get worse before it gets better, since most of the department’s employees, 32 of 48, or two-thirds, are 50 or older. Fourteen are 60 or older, said Ring in comments to the Ellis County Commission Monday evening during its regular meeting at the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main.

“We don’t get very many young applicants,” said Ring. “When they come in, most of them are much closer to my age.”

The department has only seven employees under 40, Ring said. And a number of retirements can be expected.

“On the 60-plus and above, within eight years, none of those people will be here,” he said.

This is prime time for older employees to train younger ones, said County Commissioner Dustin Roths, noting the pay is probably $5 an hour less than at a private company.

“We’ve got an impending crisis, with hiring,” Roths said. “We’re competing with the oilfield, we’re competing with the on-the-road trucking, essentially with the free market.”

Noting it hasn’t been very long ago that he was 26, he said, “In order for us to attract any youth, we all know that anybody under the age of 26 who has a parent willing to let them stay on their health insurance, has no need for the incredible health insurance coverage that we offer as a county.”

County Commission Chairman Dean Haselhorst agreed.

“That is a problem we have,” Haselhorst said. “In my own family, my son, benefits mean nothing to him, he’s all about how much per hour.”

Ring’s comments were part of a larger discussion about pay raises for county employees.

The county’s wage and benefits committee recommended the commission increase pay for county employees with five or more years on the job, less than 25 percent of the county’s employees, starting June 30, to bring county jobs closer to what similar ones are paid in the market. The pay boost is based on a pay study done in 2014 and will cost the county a little more than $136,000, said County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes.

The adjustment is the latest in a stair-step implementation that started in 2016 as money became available, including elected officials in 2017, and some of the bargaining units in 2018.

The pay hike proposal also includes a 2 percent cost of living increase for all county employees starting July 14.

The money is included in the 2019 budget.

“I don’t feel like we have a tough time hiring in the county, just in these few positions where we’re highly competitive with the free market of Ellis County,” Roths said. “Because of our benefits, because of our wages, we’re filling positions, we’re not losing people, and we offer a benefits package that not many people touch around here. I’m excited about that. We kind of get the pick of the litter, and you kind of see it through our county staff, especially in department heads and things of that nature, but I think we’re going to have to start talking about some of these positions that have been tough to fill and making some adjustments.”

Road and Bridge currently has five openings, with some of those probably being filled with internal promotions, Ring said. Truck driver is a starting position in the department.

In 2019 there are two retirements expected so far, with Karen Purvis retiring March 30 as environmental sanitarian, and the department’s office manager retiring the end of June after 27 years of service.

Roths characterized his position as fiscal restraint.

“Our benefits package is relatively aggressive and because of that, we’ve got a liability that we’re covering every year that we won’t have a ton of control over,” he said. “I did a just a little research from the implementation of the Affordable Care Act to 10 years past that, and the cost of full family health insurance, the premiums have risen 140 percent. While the rest of society was paying these premiums and having to take them on, so were the Ellis County taxpayers because we’re covering such a large portion of our employees’ health coverage.”

He said the day’s coming when the county must look at the number of people it employs.

“There is no doubt in my mind that of the 180 employees the county has, that some of them deserve raises,” he said. “I wish I felt we had the funds to be able to do that. For me it’s going to be a fiscal restraint vote.”

County Commissioner Butch Schlyer remarked that as a former county employee he participated in the wage and benefit study in 2014.

“One of the options for implementation was to do it at once. That would have cost $1.7 million at that time,” Schlyer said. “In addition, that study did not find our benefits were excessive. They found they were appropriate. When we talk about being fair to taxpayers, or looking at the fiscal issues, I think we also have to be fair to our employees.”

If the county doesn’t keep up with cost of living increases, it will quickly fall behind on pay, Schlyer said.

Haselhorst and Schlyer passed the pay increases. Roths voted against them.

Schlyer commented that his Social Security cost of living increase this year was 2.8 percent. “If we’re going to keep that scale intact, we definitely need to apply money to that cost of living,” he said.

In other business, the commissioners:

• Heard an annual report from Ellis County Fire Chief Darin Myers.

• Appointed Blaine Gabel as Catherine Township Clerk.

• Set Feb. 28 as the County Commission retreat from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Victoria fire station.

• Approved a City of Ellis request to have the county’s public works crews participate with in a chip-seal project from Jun 1 through Oct. 1, and requiring 48,000 yards of material, as done previously with other cities in the county.

• Went into executive session with no action taken afterward on a non-elected employee recruitment matter with Smith-Hanes and County Emergency Medical Services Director Kerry McCue.

• Approved a burn ban resolution so the county can establish burn bans as needed this year.

• Roths reported he spoke with Sen. Rick Billinger about economic development funding to extend the high-traffic rock bypass road in the county further north to Feedlot Road, to get better access for trucks around the city of Hays, and to help manufacturers.