Some of Ellis County’s 180 employees will likely get part of a pay hike they were promised, but others may not.
The Ellis County Commissioners on Monday evening disagreed about a cost-of-living pay raise that was originally in the works for last January.
They decided at that regular meeting to table the discussion until they meet July 13.
The cost-of-living raise, and a different one for other employees, would cost the county $60,514, according to Interim County Administrator Darin Myers.
That’s about $79,684 less than the $140,198 originally budgeted for 2020 raises, because the cost was lowered to $110,000 several weeks ago, Myers said. The reduction was achieved by delaying the raises, lowering the cost-of-living adjustment to 1.6%, charging some of the raises back to their departments, and other variables.
Besides the cost-of-living raise, also included in the $60,514 are raises to bring employees to parity with the market as determined by a county pay schedule referred to as the Evergreen Study.
Developed more than five years ago by outside hired consultants, the Evergreen Study was put into action starting in 2016 but stalled before it was fully implemented. About 63 employees have yet to get their step increase.
County Commission Chair Butch Schlyer, who was previously the county’s longtime health administrator, commented that the Evergreen Study cost about $40,000.
“I don’t know that I’d ever be interested in doing another,” Schlyer said.
“Me neither,” said County Commissioner Dean Haselhorst, who was on the commission at that time. “That was a nightmare.”
“Yes, it was, absolutely,” Schlyer said.
“It was a mess,” Haselhorst added.
“I don’t think a group from Florida had any clue about how people are paid in our county,” said Commissioner Dustin Roths, who was new to the commission in January 2019.
Roths said he would support the Evergreen pay hike. But not the cost-of-living, he said, despite 10-year’s cash flow starting next fall from two quarter-cent countywide sales taxes approved in April by voters.
He cited the COVID-19 economy and huge decline in the county’s oil and gas property valuation.
“… the value of labor has decreased in Ellis County because of oil, and because of that, so has the cost of a lot of the goods that we consume on a consistent basis, namely gasoline,” Roths said.
“We know that we are going to take a huge hit on our budget,” he said. “We have no idea if our sales tax numbers are going to be coming in the way that we expected.”
Roths said it’s likely the county will see 10% unemployment, which warrants “a more aggressive way of rewarding great staff, and not rewarding staff that isn’t doing above-and-beyond work.”
Haselhorst agreed employees should be rewarded for doing a good job, not just showing up.
“I’ve never liked this straight-across give-everybody a pay increase,” he said.
Schlyer agreed with Haselhorst as far as paying extra for showing up.
“When we get into the issue of merit pay, it’s going to be very, very difficult to set benchmarks for all these different positions,” Schlyer added, however. “We have so many, and all the departments are different.”
Roths said the county offers fair pay and an aggressive benefit package so it can run at full staff.
“If we opened up a position right now we’d likely have a line out the door of applicants, good applicants,” he said. “Typically in business when you have struggling times like this, you look for the best employees that you can find. And if someone is not happy with the pay that they get, we are not forcing them to do the job they are doing in Ellis County. They are free to leave.”
Schlyer disagreed, saying the commissioners had agreed earlier in the year to a cost-of-living raise.
“We negotiated that in good faith with our employees. Our employees had nothing to do with the state of this economy,” he said. “The politicians have forced this on everyone. During this whole virus pandemic we had a majority of our employees out in the public, each and every day, doing their jobs. In law enforcement, they’re even working four hours extra a pay period, and not asking for overtime. I think this is something employees have put trust in the commission to fulfill, and I think it’s our obligation to fulfill it.”
The commission in 2019 originally budgeted $155,000 for 2020 raises, Myers said. In January they approved $13,000 in raises for elected officials. Employees asked to delay their cost-of-living to help the county save money, hoping for a 2% increase in July to keep pace with inflation. Myers said that anything left over now from saving on the expense will stay in the budget stabilization account and roll over to build unencumbered cash for 2021, Myers said.
“From my perspective,” said Roths, owner of Diamond R Jewelry, 807 Main St., “I do have shareholders in my company, and I view the taxpayer as a shareholder in Ellis County government. I cannot imagine the heads that will spin right now if I told them I was going to increase my pay or increase any of my employees’ pay.”
Schlyer said he understands, because county residents have been laid off.
“On the other hand,” Schlyer said, “if someone goes out here to Public Works and wants to be a truck driver or a mechanic, and we know we’re going to present them an offer that’s below par, but either ‘accept it or hit the road,’ that’s just taking advantage of people.”
But Roths said that with the current economy, the commissioners should conserve tax money. If the sales tax had failed, he said, some county employees would likely have been furloughed.
“We are never holding a gun to people’s heads, asking them to work for Ellis County,” Roths said.
“That’s correct,” Schlyer said, “but when a person is down and out, it’s easy to take advantage of them.”