County workers push commission for raise
by David Abner
& Kate Shunney
Twenty Morgan County employees, including nearly all of the elected officials, pressed the Morgan County Commissioners last week to commit to a raise for county employees in the next fiscal year.
At the March 25 commission meeting, the courthouse workers vented their frustrations about the prospect of no raise, coupled with a doubling of the county’s health insurance deductible for major medical costs.
After a spirited debate among officials, the commissioners agreed to build a 1.5% raise into the budget.
They also promised to consider bumping the pay hike to 3% in June, if finances allowed it after the move into the new courthouse. Either raise would go into effect on July 1.
The commissioners had been at a stalemate about putting a raise into the 2010-2011 budget.
Commissioner Tommy Swaim favored a 3% raise, Commission President Brenda Hutchinson proposed a 1.5% raise, and Commissioner Stacy Dugan said the county couldn’t afford to give any raise at all.
Because of state regulations, county officials were forced to make a decision last Thursday so they could submit a final budget for state review by March 28.
Several department heads described to the commissioners how their employees had taken on more work in recent years without adding any staff to the county payroll.
Chief Tax Deputy Kim Michael said the payroll for the tax department in 2010 is actually less than it was in 2003.
“My girls bust their butt. I think it is a disgrace not to give my girls a raise,” Michael said.
“If there was something else you wanted, you’d find the money for it,” she said.
Michael also referred to a conversation in which one of the commissioners compared court-house workers to those in private industry.
After the meeting, Michael said the statement was made when Commissioner Dugan called her at home on a Sunday afternoon. Dugan said county employees have desk jobs and only work 34 hours a week, and she knew people at the hospital who work all day on their feet and are paid less money, according to Michael.
During the March 25 commission meeting, County Clerk Debra Kesecker picked up on this idea and said it wasn’t a fair comparison.
“You can’t compare these county employees to anyone else. If you don’t have good courthouse employees, you’ve got nothing,” Kesecker said.
“We are the Morgan County government and we need to be treated like Morgan County government employees. I think we do an awesome job. We make you all look good,” Michael told commissioners.
Prosecutor Debra McLaughlin said denying raises to county employees would save the county $36,000 while the upcoming health deductible increase would cost employees $39,000 out of their pockets.
She said a $600 to $700 raise wouldn’t even meet the higher family health deductible.
Circuit Court Clerk Kim Jackson said her department’s caseload has nearly tripled since 1998 with the addition of only one employee.
In recent years, her office has been given the added responsibility for Family Court and a business court starting this summer.
“I think that is the point the employees are trying to make,” Jackson said. “They have taken on additional jobs over the years to keep the commission from having to add employees, and that’s why I think they feel like they are being slighted.”
“The discussion about the pay raises was certainly not about the quality of work, it was simply a discussion about the economics of the situation and the budget, and the decision to keep the levy rate at what it was,” Commissioner Hutchinson said.
“You will never hear me say that you don’t work hard. I certainly think you all deserve a raise,” Hutchinson said.
“I think we have the most efficiently run courthouse in West Virginia and that’s why I pushed for a raise,” said Commissioner Swaim.
“Do I think people here deserve a raise? Yes, I do,” Commissioner Dugan said. “Everybody comes to work. They work hard, and some of the nicest people I have met are right here in this complex. However, I would not be a financially sound management person if I voted to give a raise at this point.”
Dugan said the county is moving into an area of major financial unknowns with the new courthouse.
“There are going to be things that come up every day that we have not planned for and are not in our budget and I don’t think we should be giving raises right now,” she said.
McLaughlin asked if the commission took the “unknown budget” into consideration when they decided to split the county administrator and economic development job into two jobs, costing the county another salary.
Hutchinson said that decision was made in part because of the economy and it has given Bill Clark more time to spend on economic development.
“I am not going to defend that decision. I told you it was because we felt we had the funding and because we did save money on the property and casualty (insurance),” she said.
“I do believe we need raises and I am even willing to consider redoing the Wage and Review Board. But don’t push me any farther than that because now I am starting to get aggravated,” Hutchinson told McLaughlin.
Swaim talked about priorities and wondered if it was better to spend $30,000 on a zoning ordinance, a measure he opposed, or use the money toward raises for employees.
“Those decisions have been made, and this is like we are going to go back in the past six months. Let’s move forward, people,” Hutchinson said.
In the end, the commissioners signed off on a budget of $4,369,075 that includes a 1.5% raise for employees for the fiscal year starting July 1.
They promised to re-evaluate employee raises in June after the move into the new courthouse and before the start of the fiscal year.
Wage & Review Board
During the discussion about a raise, Kim Michael presented a petition, signed by 52 county employees, asking the commissioners to reinstate the Employee Wage & Review Board.
In December, the commissioners voted 2-1 to abolish the board, which handles some personnel questions. Swaim opposed the move at the time.
“We need this Wage and Review Board because it gives a chance for issues to be debated, not one entity making decisions for everyone,” Michael said.
Assessor Ronnie McIntire favored restarting the board since it gave county employees a chance to speak.
Dugan said the board, of which she was a member, hadn’t functioned or met in more than a year when she and Hutchinson voted to dismantle it.
Hutchinson said the commissioners would reconsider the Wage & Review Board at their April 1 meeting.
“I want commitments from all of you about time and whether you’re willing to tackle some of the tough issues,” Hutchinson said.