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  • Last modified 159 days ago (April 18, 2018)

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Another $alary $tudy?

The seeds were there as county commissioners discussed rate changes to health insurance premiums, and now they’ve borne fruit: another study of county salaries is on the way.

Commissioners approved the study Monday, and we can’t begin to figure out why. It was just four years ago this month that the county received the results of the last salary survey it paid an outside consultant to do.

Do we really need another one so soon?

That one, conducted by the Austin Peters Group of Overland Park, found that county wages trailed its market peers by nearly 9 percent. The study’s recommended fix was, in essence, to eliminate the bottom two rows of the salary schedule, add two to the top, and then re-evaluate how and when raises would work into it.

That July, 56 county employees received raises averaging 8.7 percent. The recommended solution that commissioners paid professionals to develop? Never implemented.

Of course, there was a problem with the pay raises they did give. Not all county employees got raises that big, or at all. Some positions already were at or near comparable market levels. Some positions weren’t included in the study. Naturally, some of those who didn’t get big salary adjustments were disgruntled.

Former commission chairman Roger Fleming had what we believe was an excellent response to those complaints:

“I’ve been looking around at private enterprise in the county, and we are very fair to our employees,” he said in 2014. “Go and look and see what you find. Do some research yourselves and see what you can find in the way of similar jobs in the private sector in Marion County and what they offer in pay and benefits.”

On the heels of adjustments meant to bring a large number of employees in line with market standards in 2014, commissioners budgeted for 2 percent pay raises for 2016, although department heads were given discretion to award differential raises based on performance. We suspect some employees that were shorted because their supervisors believed their performance was not up to par might think they’re due a pay raise, or that their supervisor is due for a demotion.

Meanwhile, Social Security recipients got a whopping .3 percent cost-of-living increase that year.

County employees got year-end $150 bonuses for 2015, 2016, and 2017. As we’ve reported in the past, there are six-month and 12-month pay increases, and some pay increases for completing training.

There’s also the de-facto pay raise received this year from President Trump’s tax reductions.

But still, commissioners want to do another salary survey. Pardon me, but I’m channeling a memorable Ronald Reagan debate moment when he turned to Jimmy Carter, smiled, shook his head, and quipped, “There you go again.”

The word “fair” is tossed around a lot when commissioners talk about employee pay. The trouble is, there’s no consensus on what the word means.

But “fair” in the context of a salary survey usually means commissioners are thinking it’s only fair that a grader operator in Marion County be on par with a grader operator in some other counties, for example.

Never mind that commissioners in those counties may have made rash and bad salary decisions themselves. Is it fair that county taxpayers should be penalized for bad decision-making by people they didn’t elect?

And please, commissioners, can we bury the old “We have to stay competitive with others to keep our employees and to hire new ones” already. Just how often have we found pay to be a flight risk that threatens a department’s functions?

When it comes to the state of the economy, Congressman Roger Marshall freely acknowledged during a recent visit to Hillsboro that economic progress felt elsewhere in the country has bypassed agricultural areas, and possible trade wars threaten the ag economy even further. Farmers have been tightening their belts so much their buckles are about to touch their spines.

A few employees in the bottom two rungs of the salary schedule may well have a valid beef, but that doesn’t require a new salary survey. Put someone on the phone to make a few calls to some of the 19 cities and counties used for the last survey and make those specific inquiries.

We probably wouldn’t be dealing with this at all if commissioners in 2014 hadn’t chosen to ignore the professional solution they paid for in favor of yet another Band-Aid solution fraught with future glitches they could not, or would not, see.

I’m certain many will think me to be Ebenezer Scrooge, but I don’t mind one bit. There’s no solid justification for another salary study right now; there’s just some vague notion that some employees feel underpaid, or are disgruntled because they haven’t gotten as big a raise as someone else.

If the salary schedule needs to be revamped, as was suggested, then start there. Get feedback on what can be done there. Figure out the cost, then figure out where it can be found in the budget. Consider all, that’s all, of the possible trade-offs and budget solutions before the words “mill levy increase” cross your minds, so that they are less likely to ever cross your lips. That’s what’s fair for everyone.

— david colburn

Last modified April 18, 2018

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