Cowley County Commissioners are rethinking the 2022 budget to find ways to adjust compensation and give one-step increases to county personnel.
The decision to rethink some of their responses to county department and organization requests for funding came after two meetings in which department heads, virtually all of the county elected personnel, made their cases for step and compensation raises for members of their departments.
Register of Deeds Toni Long started the process at the July 6 meeting when she asked for step raises and a change in job description for the two employees in her office. That request the commissioners granted, but some people noted the commission could not do that for one department or group of people without doing it for all county personnel who number more than 200.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, Sheriff Dave Falletti, County Clerk and Elections Officer Karen Madison, Treasurer Maci DeCoudres and Cowley County Attorney Larry Schwartz made their presentations on behalf of their staffs and their departments because several feel they need more employees. “I am passionate about this,” DeCoudres said and Madison echoed her. “I want to do more for my staff.” In fact, Madison said she was angry with herself for not taking up the cause earlier. What she referred to as the “life threatening concerns” around security for voting are going to get worse, and she needs a fully trained and compensated staff to make sure the elections are protected.
Falletti talked about the loss of employees to other departments. “I’ve lost 13 employees in the past 12 months,” he said. “That’s half my staff.” And he is currently short three positions in the jail.
After a break, the commissioners took up the issue of improving compensation, which they defined as not only salary but insurance, paid time off, cost of living, insurance and other benefits.
Chair Alan Groom said the commissioners have been focused too much on keeping the mill levy flat and taxes down and they haven’t thought enough about employees’ compensation for several years.
Last year, for example, county employees received cost of living raises but no step increases. In fact there have been no step increases or merit raises since 2017, said county administrator Lucas Goff. Most of the department heads spoke of how the employees get trained in Cowley County then go elsewhere so they can make more money.
The cost of insurance has skyrocketed over the last several years, and many employees have collected large sums of insurance because of illness, including COVID, and injuries. County clerk Karen Madison pointed out that because the cost of living hasn’t been enough to cover the insurance payments, some county employees have lost money the last couple of years.
The commissioners rescinded their approval of Long’s request so they can look at the compensation of all employees.
The commissioners agreed to fund an investigative project to look at the county’s compensation to employees, every individual’s compensation and step level and how they might be improved. Goff said the project, which would be done by a third party, could take up to six or eight months because it will have to be so detailed.
Besides the long-term study, the commissioners agreed on several steps they can take with this year’s budget to make compensation increases possible.
They still have three objectives for Goff to follow as he lays out the budget. One is to keep the mill levy as flat as possible. The second is to cover all employee insurance premiums. The third is to find a way to give every employee a step increase this year.
One way to attain these goals is to cut 15 percent from the appropriations for the City-Cowley County Health Department, Four-County Mental Health, Cowley County Council on Aging and the Cowley County Extension Council. Every other organization funded through a county appropriation has taken cuts in the last several years and figured out how to go on with less, said commissioner Bob Voegele. “Now the bigger ones have to do it.
Another means for raising more money is to halve the amount of money put into the road and bridge. Currently the county puts in about $400,000. Halved the fund would still be receiving $200,000 a year. The decrease in funding should be a spur for the department to come up with a master plan for working on the roads and bridges. There is no general plan now.
Every department’s budget request will be reviewed to see that the money will be used for something directly benefitting the county residents, Goff said.
Commissioner Wayne Wilt said he could understand each department head’s concern for their departments, but he said, “They’re responsible for their departments. We (the commissioners) are responsible for all the residents of Cowley County.”