Commissioners debate their raises, bonuses program in Butler County

The Butler County commissioners briefly considered changing the way they dole out performance pay, but they’ll continue to use the same method for 147 employees under their direct control.

The newly approved 2020 budget calls for total labor costs, including benefits, of $144.36 million. Wages will cost taxpayers about $103 million, including raises and some new positions.

The commissioners for several years have operated with a two-part performance pay formula that calls for pay hikes in the 1 to 3 percent range added to an employee’s base pay and another 1 to 3 percent available in lump sum, quarterly payments.

The commissioners discussed having the first part of the formula change to a straight 2 percent “cost of living” increase and keeping the second piece as merit-based for the 147 people who work directly for them. However, since the raises had already been set under the traditional formula, it would have been difficult to undo.

RELATED: Some Butler County departments get bigger-than-usual raises for 2020

Commissioner T.C. Rogers noted that employees were already told their raise amounts, and if the change were made, some would get less than the 3 percent they were told and others would potentially get more than they deserve.

“I think that the office-holders and department heads would have a real problem retaining employees especially in this employment environment,” Rogers said. “I’m just being practical here.”

The commissioners set a 2 percent pool of money from a given department’s total payroll for eligible employees for the base increases and an equal amount for the lump sum incentive bonuses. Since the pools of money are finite, the total cost of changing the method would have been “negligible” according to County Administrator Judi Boyko.

Rogers and Commissioner Don Dixon approved the legislation setting the raise amounts for their direct reports, and Commissioner Cindy Carpenter voted against the measure.

“I would say move it to 2 percent on the base right now,” said Carpenter, who added she believes there has been a disconnect between the intent of the program and the way it has been deployed.

Dixon agreed with her but said the “die has been cast” for the raise program this year.

Finance director Tawana Keels told the commissioners that employees have voiced concerns the program is unfair in its current form. She said there are some department heads who routinely give employees high scores on the evaluations and others who are “more critical” which impacts your employee record. Also, she said if a boss wants to give someone three percent, someone else is going to get below two percent which might be unfair.

“The idea that everyone would get two percent seems more fair, if you see it as a cost of living,” Keels said. “But you really need to standardize the scoring because to say one person is high and one’sa low based on who is doing the evaluation doesn’t seem fair either, because that goes into your file.”

Boyko told the Journal-News in her experience, as a long-time government official who has espoused merit-based raises, programs like this do work.

“Generally it’s true if the rater is subjective it can’t work, it won’t work, but if you truly have a rater that’s objective and has the best interest of not only the organization, the employees but the services that we’re delivering to the residents of the county, then the program works,” she said.

Employees who are at or above their pay range are only eligible for the lump sum portion of the incentive plan. The plan this year shows 20 of the 29 people who are topped out received four percent lump sum awards. Most of the rest of the employees receive base increases right around two percent and the same percentage for lump sum. Only three people got people got the highest hike — one was at 2.8 percent — in both categories and three people got a one percent increase to base and an additional one percent lump sum.

The commissioners are undertaking another salary survey this year to determine how employees stack up in the market and now will also review the whole salary program. Boyko told the Journal-News when the program was designed three years ago all of the department heads and elected officials were consulted, but it is time to re-evaluate.

“I think at this point it’s best the existing program is examined, it’s reviewed for its program scope but also for the measurables, did it perform the way everyone had anticipated or had wanted it to,” Boyko said. “Look at it with a new set of filters for 2021.”

The commissioners have convinced most other elected officials and independent boards to follow the two-plus-two plan. Boyko this year has recommended adding another percentage to the lump sum pool for all eligible employees in the county, unions included. The total impact will be $540,925. The commissioners haven’t yet voted on the bigger incentive pie but Dixon said they will approve it.

“All the commissioners have indicated that they will support that,” Dixon said.

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