County wrestles with staff pay and retention

Ward County is taking a preliminary look at employee pay raises of up to 10 percent while dealing with staff shortages that have become problematic in some areas.

The Ward County Commission provided guidance on employee pay to Auditor Devra Smestad Tuesday to help staff prepare requests for next year’s budget. The commission agreed to allow raises up to 10 percent as a starting point. Commissioners will further review salaries and may make cuts or other adjustments during the budgeting process.

Colleen Houmann, human resources executive for the county, said better salaries could help address the county’s difficulty in finding and keeping employees.

“For some positions, the applicants aren’t there. I don’t know what to do about that. We need people,” she said.

Smestad added that the county could use 19 to 20 new positions, which also could be a topic during budget deliberations.

The county has about 200 regular employees, and about an additional 15 part-time employees.

Positions that are the hardest to fill are in the highway department, corrections and buildings and grounds, Houmann said after Tuesday’s meeting. The highway department has had a road superintendent position open for more than two years.

“It’s been challenging to find someone with that skill set. All of the people who have the skill set needed and the abilities needed are making more money than we can pay,” said county engineer Dana Larsen.

Equipment operator positions also are difficult to keep filled.

“We are pretty much always advertising for equipment operators. About the time we get full, it’s about the time someone either leaves or retires,” Larsen said.

In addition, any technical or construction-related position is hard to fill, he said. The county required nearly a year to hire an assistant engineer and a Geographical Information System specialist.

Sheriff Steve Kukowski said the jail was short five correctional officers last week but has hired so is down only one this week. He attributes a retention problem to jail over-crowding, which has inmates sleeping in hallways rather than in secure cells.

“It puts the staff in fear because there’s just no place to lock them down,” Kukowski said. Employees don’t stay because of the stress of working in an environment that is more chaotic than controlled, he said.

Although commissioners supported up to 10 percent pay raises, feelings were mixed on a recommendation from the personnel committee for the 5 percent cost-of-living and up to 5 percent performances increases.

Commissioner Shelly Weppler objected to a 5 percent cost of living increase when the index for this area indicates only a 2 percent rise in costs as of the end of April. Nor did she support the philosophy of merit increases, calling them difficult to implement and disruptive to job salary ranges. She cast the only vote against including the 10 percent raise in the preliminary budget.

“I do not like merit pay at all. It’s too subjective absolutely too subjective,” commissioner Alan Walter said.

“I have always believed in merit pay. You have good people, you reward them monetarily,” commission chairman Jerome Gruenberg countered.

Walter said he prefers using salary surveys to ensure wages are competitive with the regional market. Ward County does use a salary survey. Houman said the survey of employers this year shows salaries are both below and above the market, depending on the position. She added that the quality of the survey depends on the response rate, which has been only about 55 percent.

Commissioner Jack Nybakken moved to place the 10 percent raises in the preliminary budget, saying the amount is not unreasonable. The motion passed 3-1. Commissioner John Fjeldahl had left the meeting early to attend to another commitment.

The commission also approved a similar increase to be placed in the preliminary budget for commissioners.

Last January, employees received a 5 percent cost-of-living raise. Last year, department heads received raises of 7.5 percent and other employees 9 percent, and in 2012, the combination merit/COLA raises varied from 3 to 5 percent. The maximum merit/COLA increase in 2011 was 5 percent.

In other business, commissioners decided not to conduct mosquito spraying. The cost was estimated at about $7,000 to spot spray from Logan to Burlington, but there was hesitancy about spraying just that area.

“How many other people are going to complain?” Gruenberg said. “Where do you draw the line?”

Although spraying would involve only selected problem areas, the commission concluded the county is too large a territory for that type of operation.