[Editor's Note: This is part 2 of what is anticipated to be a multi-part series of articles on the Grant County Commission special meeting of July 20, 2021.]

By Mary Alice Murphy

Grant County Financial Officer Linda Vasquez presented the information on the fiscal year 2022 to the commissioners at the special meeting on July 20, 2021, which replaced the regular work session.

"We developed a budget for fiscal year 2022," Vasquez said. "We ended up with a beginning balance of $4,308,588, which is really good. Everything else is the same as the preliminary budget. I did put in a 3 percent increase in salaries for all regular employees excluding the sheriff's office, with a couple of options. [Editor's Note: The Sheriff's Department has already received a step up raise due to past decisions.] The raise can be done with one of two options. One column shows the preliminary budget; another column what the departments requested; and an additional column with the 1½ percent going into effect in July and another 1½ percent being done in January. Also, an increase to the medical insurance, which is a 16 percent increase for the renewal to take place in January. I calculated 8 percent for the rest of this fiscal year, but keep in mind that we will have to add the 8 percent for the next fiscal year, so it will cover the whole calendar year. We did receive an additional $200,000 in PILT [payment in lieu of taxes by the federal government for untaxed federal land in the county], so I added that amount and budgeted $2.2 million for PILT for fiscal year 2022. I wasn't very conservative with revenues this time, but I have to say that our budget benefited from all the CARES funds that we got due to the pandemic. The clerk's office received a lot of funds, so we didn't have to use General Fund moneys for a lot of their expenses. They received about $300,000, and the manager's office and commissioners received about $200,000. So ,what I need to know is what the commissioners want me to do to have this final budget ready to approve on July 27 to submit the DFA (Department of Finance and Administration)."

District 2 Commissioner Javier "Harvey" Salas chimed in and said he also asked about 5 percent and 7 percent increases and asked how much more money would be required for the two options.

Vasquez said it was reported to the commissioners in the preliminary budget. "If I'm not mistaken, I think it will be about an additional $200,000 for the 5 percent and the 7 percent will be more. I would like to mention that even with the 3 percent increase, the ending balance would be $123,637 as surplus for anything that would arise throughout the year that we would need to fund. I don't feel we would be able to do the 5 percent or 7 percent."

Salas asked how much the 3 percent would cost the county.

Vasquez said it would cost about $200,000 just for the salary raise and about $250,000 total with the increase in medical insurance and other benefits. "I have incorporated the 3 percent as of July.

"You need to communicate that to the employees about the insurance hit," Salas directed. "I wanted more money in their pockets."

District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne noted that the benefits "prevent money coming out of their pockets."

District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards noted what the impact would be with 1.5 percent in July and the other 1.5 percent in January. "It would raise the surplus up to $145,000. But still included in the budget is the Human Resources manager and the assistant county manager? And the insurance would be an additional $16,000 for this fiscal year and another $16,000 for the next fiscal year."

District 1 Commissioner and Chair Chris Ponce said what works for him is the 3 percent raise now in July, because employees are feeling the pinch of rising prices.

Edwards noted that the raise is a recurring expense, so it means about $200,000 more every year. "Does this budget address the staff members that are below where they should be? Because the blanket increase raises the gaps between the lower paid and those paid more."

Vasquez said she did address an increase for the airport manager but removed the increases for those with more advanced skills than some of the other employees. "We were, in the preliminary budget, proposing increases of 10 percent of the increase for some, but I have removed those. We have to remember that the airport is self-funded and doesn't rely on the General Fund."

Ponce said she brought up the corrective increases. "If we have employees that are below, it needs to be across the board and not just the manager."

Vasquez said some of the airport positions are vacant and some are union-represented, which might create a problem, because those who are union-represented would require union negotiation, as she understands it.

Salas asked if the county has employees that are below $15 an hour. Vasquez said yes, and they will receive the 3 percent increase. "There can be no corrective increases, because they are union employees."

Interim County Manager Randy Villa said he believes the issue is with each individual, who would have to be certified in certain skills and it would require union discussion.

Edwards said her preference is to give the 1.5 percent raise now to everyone, and "then look at the corrective increases, which are in addition to the flat increase."

Ponce reiterated that his preference is for the 3 percent now and let the interim county manager to build a plan to research the certifications and discuss with the union on recurring increases.

Salas said his idea is to increase those below $15 an hour.

Ponce said his understanding is that everyone is close to $15 an hour. "After the probationary period, they go to $15 an hour and there are not many under $15 right now."

Browne noted that the commissioners asked County Manager Charlene Webb for an estimate to bring every employee up to at least the mid-point and she gave them an estimate of $500,000 to $600,000. "Could we get the union to agree to a step plan?"

Webb replied that she cannot control what the union decides nor can she predict any or how much of a salary increase the union will want.

Browne said he believes any future raises should give half as a cost-of living (COLA) increase and half toward getting people to the mid-point to close the gaps.

Salas asked how an employee moves within a job range.

Webb said the county has a plan for that, but "unfortunately moving through the wage plan is dependent on county revenue."

"We have to be clear about what the raises will cost the county," Edwards said. "We know what the budget looks like. I would like to see 1.5 percent increase now and the other half in January. Some people are always behind."

Webb said she thought the 1.5 percent was doable now, and then if the county has the funds to go to the mid-point.

"I keep hearing about the plan," Ponce said, "and that we don't have the money for that plan. We have 3 percent right now. It's more a management thing to bring people up."

Villa said: "We have the plan, but the question is how to pay for the plan and implement it. Even when it can be done, some employees will not be happy, and some will be happy. I think there's a way to do it, but whatever the plan is will not make everyone happy."

Salas said he wanted the 3 percent now and then bring in the union and do the study to bring everyone up.

Webb said the county had released an RFP (request for proposal) for a position and the classification plan. "They evaluated every job description and wage scale. It was consistent. They did a wage comparison among regional and state agencies. We made some changes and made them department specific and included a COLA increase. The study has been done. The structure is in place. Historically, we have to start new employees at the minimum. If we bring in someone with experience, we can pay more. It happens everywhere. The structure is there, but the implementation is the issue. We have to figure out how to pay for it."

Salas said the county needs a study on who needs corrective increases for more fairness.

Browne said: "We know we have to fund the corrective increases, but Alicia and I want to do half of the COLA at the beginning of this fiscal year with the rest of the money to partially correct the wages."

Webb said: "I keep hearing corrective action. Do you mean bringing them up to midpoint? Or bringing their skills up? I've done calculations for bringing everyone up to midpoint and I will find it."

Edwards said they were talking about people who have been paid below the midpoint, such as those who had more seniority but started at the minimum and people who were hired at a higher level.

Browne said the study showed the Grant County wages did not compare favorably to other regional entities.

"I think we've fixed that," Webb said. "What you're talking about is bringing everyone up to midpoint. That is dependent on the budget and up to the union."

Edwards asked if the midpoint is based on years, and Browne chimed in asking if it required a given set of skills.

Webb gave an example of a road laborer. "If we hire someone with experience, what is that person worth? That is dependent on the skill set. The directors have to determine that. It is not black-and-white."

Ponce once more said he wanted the 3 percent raise now.

Edwards reiterated that she wanted 1.5 percent now and the other 1.5 percent to bring the rest up to midpoint.

Webb noted that every 2-3 years, "we have to recalculate. With the benefits, it would require $512,000 to bring everyone up to midpoint."

Ponce said employees should get 3 percent now because costs are going up. "Eventually, we will work on the rest of bringing them up."

District 4 Commissioner Billy Billings said he was on the side of the 1.5 percent now.

Vasquez asked for clarification about the 1.5 percent for bringing people up.

Browne said the 1.5 percent would target those who are farthest from the midpoint. He also said he wanted to introduce a slightly different topic. "The insurance is going up 16 percent. Our annual insurance bill is $2.7 million, that's almost a $450,000 annual increase, so it's about $218,000 for half a year. The insurance benefit is going up more than the 3 percent salary increase."

Ponce said: "That's a pay increase."

Webb said the increase is based on illnesses that employees had last year, not just Covid.

Edwards noted that the county can have a bad year any year or even for the next three years.

Browne said there are agencies that self-insure. "I think the next county manager should explore partial self-insurance."

Webb said there have been counties who tried to self-insure. "They weren't able to make it cost-effective."

Vasquez asked what numbers the commissioners wanted in the final budget.

The consensus was to leave the same numbers.

Vasquez presented the budget transfers and adjustments for the end of the 2021 fiscal year.

Browne asked if temporary transfers affect the 3/12th required reserve. "Can we meet the reserve at any time?"

Vasquez said the county has never had an issue with the reserve. "It's to cover the first half of the year expenses until the property taxes are received."

The final 2021 budget with adjustments was approved.

Vasquez also presented the final quarter financial report for the fourth quarter of the 2021 budget, which ended June 30, 2021.

Vasquez noted the General Fund had begun at $4.4 million and $14 million had been collected. Transfers included $4.7 million and expenditures totaled $9.7 million, leaving the $4.3 million balance.

The Road Fund began with a balance of $218,832, transfers in of $863,507.78, had $1.5 million in expenditures, leaving a balance of $200,382.59.

The Detention Center had zero balance to begin, received revenues of $755,690.88, transfers of about $2.969 million, expenditures of about $3.444 million leaving an adjusted balanced of about $280,000.

The report was approved.

The next article will begin with new business.

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