Most Butler County officials stick to 3% raise plan

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Most Butler County elected officials and independent boards are sticking to recommended 3% pay hikes this year, but few have followed the commissioners’ two-part merit plan.

The 2022 general fund budget includes $53.5 million for wages and $107.6 million total for all funds — not including costs for benefits — compared to $48 million and $102.7 million last year. This represents a 10.2% wage hike in the general fund and 4.8% overall. There are 1,907 county employees on the payroll.

Recently the commissioners approved nearly $420,000 in raises to reward 137 non-union employees under their direct control. Other office holders and independent boards set their own pay increases and most budgeted for a flat 3% increase to their employees’ base wages.

The only exceptions were County Coroner Dr. Lisa Mannix, who plans a 5% boost, and the Domestic Relations Court with a 4.8% jump from the approved budget in 2021 to this year. County Engineer Greg Wilkens hasn’t determined final raise amounts for his employees yet, he does that in July.

Domestic Relations Court judges Barbara Schneider Carter and Margot Halcomb for years have lamented they were losing people left and right due to low wages. The have done salary studies and budgeted the 5% increase for this year.

“The commissioners, through fiscal responsibility, have placed Butler County in a better financial position in spite of the pandemic. The Domestic Relations Court can now request wage adjustments in good conscience,” the judges said in a statement to the Journal-News. “The requested expenditures are reasonable and necessary for the efficient operation of the Domestic Relations Division and mindful of the important balance between good stewardship of taxpayer money and the retention of skilled court staff to provide quality services to the citizens of Butler County.”

Mannix in her budget submission to the commissioners said the 5% increase is less that the 5.4% inflation rate and is necessary to keep salaries competitive with like-sized counties.

The commissioners for several years have operated with a two-part performance pay formula that calls for pay hikes in the 1% to 3% range added to an employee’s base pay which they refer to as part A and another 1% to 3% percent available in lump sum payments they call part B.

The idea was they could be flexible if finances turn sour. The commissioners embarked on a pay policy overhaul after the Great Recession when about 500 county employees were laid off. Double-digit raises and multiple pay hikes in a year used to be the norm in the county. The highest payroll in the past 20 years was back in 2008 when there were 2,596 county workers who were paid $136.6 million. After the belt-tightening took place the number of employees had dropped to 2,276 earning $122 million in 2012.

Traditionally, the commissioners set a 2% pool of money from a given department’s total payroll for eligible, non-union employees for the base increases and an equal amount for the lump sum incentive bonuses. This year they increased the pools of money to 3%.

The commissioners set the budgets but have no authority to tell other elected officials or independent boards how much to pay their people. The state sets the salaries for elected officials.

The majority of Wilkens’ budget is supported by motor vehicle taxes not the general fund, in fact only 50% of five employees’ salaries — out of 80 employees — are paid out of the general fund. He has not espoused the commissioners’ two-part plan. He said he gives his employees a cost-of-living increase and then merit raises either as a percentage of their base, lump sum or extra personal days that can be cashed in.

“I’ve had experience with that in the past as an employee and it goes over like lead balloon,” Wilkens said. “Your employees are smart enough to understand the compounding effect of that and the compounding on the retirement.”

The additional raises above the cost-of-living boost which is around 3% are not a given, “we don’t readily give out merit raises, merit raises are not something that’s considered for everybody all the time, they’re probably pretty limited in nature generally speaking.”

The Common Pleas Court General Division hasn’t followed the commissioners’ program either. The judges budgeted a 3% increase for raises and the money will be awarded on merit. Court Administrator Wayne Gilkison said when the commissioners first implemented the plan the judges felt percentage-to-base was necessary if they were going to keep their staff.

“We invest a lot of money in training our staff and we want staff to stay,” Gilkison said. “The two-plus-two if you just do the math on it, it appeared to us when we met with (former administrator) Charlie Young, in the first two years of that program employees would get more cash in their pocket, but in the third year it actually is worse off for the employee than the 3% would be.”

Treasurer Nancy Nix was the only official to explicitly say she planned to dole out up to 3% on the base and up to 2% for lump sum merit. She said one long-time employee received 4% to bring her more in line with what she deserved.

After several years when everyone was forced to hold the line due to financial uncertainty, she said now it’s time to ensure employees stay.

“I think because of our cost cutting for the last 15 years, and with federal funds coming down, and paying off the general fund debt, it has given a little more breathing room than we’ve ever had, because we’ve been so restrictive,” Nix said. “With the economic condition and inflation hitting us so hard, I was encouraging the commissioners last year that we’re going to have to be less restrictive if we’re going to keep our good employees.”

County Auditor Roger Reynolds penciled in 3% for merit raises for his employees this year, but a couple years ago he gave his leadership team a big bump. Two employees received raises in the 12% range, one employee received back-to-back 12% increases and another got an 18% bump up. They all make between $105,000 to $108,000, but their salaries barely budged last year, according to salary lists obtained by the Journal-News.

Reynolds said he couldn’t afford to lose his team and “they more than pay for themselves in cost savings.”

“I realized how important my team is to the county and how important it is to keep them together,” Reynolds said. “That required keeping them more at a market rate for their salaries and reward them. And we’ve had some other offices within the county recruit my folks by paying them more money.”

As for the elected officials themselves, the legislature gave them all 5% increases in 2016 but the raises for county commissioners, auditors, clerks of court, coroners, engineers, recorders and treasurers were only for two years. The judges, prosecutors and sheriffs received 5 percent pay hikes for four years. The non-judicial officials received another 5% increase in 2020 and last year.

A 1.75 percent cost of living bump was also given to all elected officials through 2028.

The pay rates are based on the population of a county and Butler falls in the 200,001 to 400,000 category. The county missed topping 400,000 by 9,643 people in the 2020 census, if it had gone over that benchmark the county would have had to pay $78,547 more in elected official salaries this year.

The elected officials will collectively make more than $3 million this year but more than half is state-paid for judicial salaries.

Sheriff Richard Jones has the biggest general fund budget by far at $44 million and the bulk of the salaries are contractually set. All of the sheriff’s union contracts are being renegotiated this year so raise amounts are difficult to predict but Finance Director Vickie Barger budgeted an increase of $815,248 for union wages and 3% or $180,520 for the remainder.

Chief Deputy Anthony Dwyer said the sheriff has done some lump sum merit increases for the non-union employees but tries to keep parity with the union staff.

“What generally happens is we try and mirror our non-contractual people with the contractual,” Dwyer said. “So clerical people that work fiduciary status would be mirrored with our clerical contracts. And captains for instance, gun-totters, they generally mirror whatever the union gets. So if the union gets 3% generally the sheriff gives 3% to the non-contractual that fit in the same category.”

He said his staff has met with the commissioners to talk about the progress of the contract negotiations with the FOP.

The county’s budget is robust this year and has been very healthy for the past several, despite the pandemic. So strong the commissioners approved an $18.5 million tax roll back for this year. Prior to approving the tax break the 2022 general fund budget called for a beginning cash balance of $119.7 million, revenues were projected to reach $116 million and the commissioners, other office holders and departments planned to spend $107.5 million.

It also includes $27.5 million for one-time expenses like a capital reserve fund and the promised $2.5 million contribution to Spooky Nook infrastructure and $16 million in the budget stabilization fund. With the tax break it left a cash balance of roughly $77 million. Non-general fund expenses total $370.5 million.

Commissioner Don Dixon told the Journal-News he isn’t terribly concerned the other offices aren’t espousing the two-part plan.

“We really don’t feel anybody has terribly abused our program,” Dixon said. “We hope to get back to it if we ever get to a normal, but nobody knows when normal is ever going to be. So everybody is doing their best to stay with the program, it’s still very viable and it has done and is doing what it’s supposed to do, as far as being able to control our budget if things change quickly.”

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