Taxpayers have paid $1.4B for county payroll

Butler County taxpayers have paid almost $1.4 billion for payroll and benefits for county employees during the past decade, but officials say the days of bloated budgets and huge raises are over as the county seeks parity with the private sector.

The payroll for 44 county offices and departments for 2013 was $120 million, which is almost at 2003 levels when 2,479 workers earned $109 million, and well below the highest payroll payout in 2008 when 2,596 county workers were paid $136.6 million. County Administrator Charlie Young has estimated erasing compounded raises in 2008 saved the county $7.5 million, and the new compensation program will save about $18.5 million over 10 years.

When the Great Recession rolled in, wages were frozen, layoffs came and payroll had dropped almost $10 million by 2010. Commissioner Don Dixon said past practices nearly bankrupted the county.

“In the past we had people getting huge increases. If you had three people doing the same job and you wanted to bring someone else in here and pay them more, you would just change their description by a word or two and set a new pay scale,” he said. “That’s not possible now. We have 13 pay scales now, before it was like 125.”

Dixon said he believes there were raises being given under the previous administration that the commissioners may not even have known about. Everything hit the fan when the famous $3.8 million buyout was floated to the commissioners back in 2008. Former commissioners Chuck Furmon and Greg Jolivette approved the deal at first but then did an about-face when Dixon questioned the deal.

“The numbers didn’t appear to be right and some of the salary increases had been manipulated,” he said. “When we got the whole story on the buyout plan, the numbers were really not correct. The salaries weren’t what they should have been and they changed steps and some of the pay schedules without the commissioners knowing it… The numbers weren’t right and after that came to light the other two commissioners voted to rescind it.”

Big raises were commonplace then as well. One employee under the commissioner’s control received a $49,346 pay increase between 2002 and 2008, but that person also received a promotion, according to Human Resources Director Gary Sheets. A Water and Sewer Department wage study also produced some hefty raises in the 50 percent to 60 percent range during that time frame. Sheets said some people making more than $100,000 in the water and sewer department were “red-lined” after the controversial Clemans Nelson wage study was done.

Dixon and Furmon did battle over the wage survey, and it took Commissioner Cindy Carpenter joining the board to get the $100,000 study approved. The company surveyed other governments and the private sector to see how the county stacked up pay-wise. As a result of the study, in 2011 the county determined 42 of the 144 non-union employees under the commissioners’ control were overpaid and 14 others were underpaid.

The old step system has been abolished for the non-union commissioners’ employees and a pay-for-performance model is in the works. In the interim, the county has settled several union contracts with lump sum $500/$550 payments and contract re-opener language usually in the final year of the three-year deals.

Two union contracts are still unsettled. A fact finder from the State Employment Relations Board recommended the Job and Family Services workers should get a 1.5 percent increase. The commissioners rejected the recommendation and the two sides will go back to the bargaining table.

Another fact finder issued a report on the Children Services contract on Thursday but it has not been published yet. The Child Support Enforcement Agency recently ratified its first-ever contract with the county and President Rose Mariano said the performance system that is in the development stage — for implementation next year with non-union employees under the commissioners’ authority — won’t be applied uniformly or fairly.

“We purposely omitted the performance pay because in government merit pay is unfair,” Mariano said. “In government, it’s who contributes to campaigns that gets favoritism. There are a few people that we work with that started at the top of the step pay grade because of who they know; they never had to go through the steps,” she said.

On the flip side, Auditor Roger Reynolds said his office has weathered the financial meltdown precisely because they have chosen to pay for performance. He lost 30 people during the recession bringing his staff down to 45. He said he has hired experienced people and utilized technology to manage the cutbacks.

“The way that we’ve been able to manage our offices and continue to provide the services is that we’re hiring a more skilled group of people and paying them based on the performance that they’re providing,” he said. “And it works. It works in the private sector and as we’ve proven, it works in the government sector as well.”

The sheriff has the largest budget of all at $25 million and it has grown 51.6 percent since 2003. Most of that growth occurred between 2003 and 2009 when the budgets went up, on average, about $2 million a year to an 11-year high of $26 million in 2009. During the recession the sheriff lost 71 of the 377 people on the payroll in 2008, but the staff was back up to 359 last year.

The unions there all agreed to the lump sum payments rather than a percentage that would raise their base. Chief Tony Dwyer said the recession had a profound effect on what had been the status quo.

“Prior to the economy collapsing things were negotiated differently, everybody across the region, when you would go into a contract negotiation and three percent increases were pretty regular and that would be for everybody, law enforcement… everybody. The unions usually became in at a much higher request and we came in at a lower request and three percent seemed to be the default…,” he said. “After the economy collapsed, the money just wasn’t there and everybody was in dire straights so they approached contract negotiations differently.”

Dwyer said while the sworn officers accepted the lump sum payments they are back at the bargaining table again talking salaries. As for performance-based-pay Dwyer said that is a little difficult to apply in the law enforcement world because “there’s not a lot of latitude where you can lay down on the job.”

“In our job it’s harder to not perform,” he said. “In corrections we’re pretty strict. We’re a quasi militaristic organization… Corrections officers and police have certain requirements and certain mandates, and if they don’t meet those they are pretty quickly identified and we have a disciplinary process in place for that.”

Young said there have obviously been nay-sayers regarding the merit pay program, but he believes once people see how well it works with non-union employees next year, others will want to follow suit.

“I frankly think it will be an easy sell once they see the fairness and commitment of this program. I think they will be get on board very rapidly once they get over the fear, and the fear is really of the unknown,” he said. “Once they see what it is, how it’s implemented and how it’s fairly administered, I think they’ll be very willing to participate. Maybe I’m being a Polly Anna but that’s what I feel.”

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