Butler County payroll program helps control raises, bonuses

ajc.com

The county has reduced spending on payroll for its employees through a program that supporters say prevents big raises and bonuses, saving taxpayer money.

In the last decade, Butler County payroll has dropped 6.3 percent, much of that because the government has 561 fewer employees. But county officials also point to cost controls and a merit pay plan that could save $120 million over 10 years.

Commissioner Don Dixon said some county workers once routinely received double-digit raises and some picked up multiple salary increases in a year, leaving payroll spending unchecked.

Commissioner Cindy Carpenter said she believes the county pay and benefits now are fair and the staff, for the most part, is right-sized.

“To get the salaries in line with the skill set of positions has taken some time,” she said. “All of the office holders and all of our agencies are on board with that. Most of us weren’t here when those kinds of conditions existed.”

Most Butler County employee salaries are paid with your tax dollars — either general fund dollars or levies like at Children Services, Mental Health and the Board of Developmental Disabilities.

Commissioners approved their final round of additional appropriations last week — $296,950 total for the year — so department heads and office holders can distribute the last of lump-sum merit raises for the year.

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Commissioners have pushed merit pay for all county workers, union and nonunion. Under their plan, up to 2 percent is added to base pay and another 2 percent is available for lump-sum bonuses based on performance.

The pay structure is the result of an effort launched eight years ago to study the county’s pay scales and get them more aligned with the market and within the county. Called the Clemans Nelson study, the effort since has been updated.

Dixon had pushed for the study. His fellow commissioners wouldn’t back it then.

Carpenter was instrumental in getting the study approved when she took office.

Commissioners have used iterations of the plan for their people for several years, but in 2016 they got buy-in from most office holders to do their two-part compensation package.

County Administrator Charlie Young said the commissioners committed to three years of funding the whole plan, but that commitment expires next year. He said they would stick to the plan “unless things fell apart, and luckily they didn’t fall apart, and we are able to stay with that commitment.”

This year 117 of the 143 non-union employees under the commissioners’ direct control qualified for at least a 2 percent pay bump. The commissioners budgeted more than $1 million for nonunion raises this year.

Officials have said over 10 years the county will save $122.3 million by compounding the 2 percent rather than simply awarding the full 4 percent.

Clemans Nelson surveyed other governments and the private sector to see how the county compared on pay. The study helped determine in 2011 that 42 of the 144 non-union employees under the commissioners’ control were overpaid and 14 were underpaid.

Over the past 15 years, the total payroll was at its highest in 2008 at $136.6 million — wages and benefits — and there were 2,596 employees. Last year the payroll was $128.6 million for 2,035 workers. The county budgeted $139.4 million this year and as of Nov. 30 paid out $124.8 million to 2,182 employees.

All of the departments under the commissioners’ direct control – including those with unions like Children Services – follow the two/two plan and other office holders like the Prosecutor, Juvenile and Common Pleas courts, the Clerk of Courts and Recorder also subscribe to the hybrid pay plan.

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Not every office holder follows the commissioners’ pay plan. For instance, Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds said his employees received performance raises in the 0 to 3 percent range this year, a portion on the base pay and some in cash to some people. Additional bonuses are awarded for attendance, something that was a rampant problem when he took office in 2008. This year 30 percent of his staff had no sick hours.

“From day one I did strictly performance increases and the program I had set up is working,” he said. “So long as I’m within the budget range, I’ve just stayed with my program.”

County Treasurer Nancy Nix also has an attendance component in her raise formula but she follows the commissioner’s two/two plan.

“All but one employee received the 2 percent base increase, which we view more as cost-of-living adjustment,” Nix said. “Also, while attendance is very important for the 2 percent bonus, we do also keep metrics that must be met on performance and tardiness.”

Commissioner T.C. Rogers said it is important to pay a fair wage to attract and retain good workers, and he believes they have done that. He said the county is right-sized and that’s only due to the caliber of people who work there.

“The people that are working there now, more than ever, have assumed increased responsibilities and are at the highest level of efficiency than we could imagine some time back,” Rogers said.