Hourly wage of county employees discussed commission meeting

Big Horn County Assessor Gina Anderson met with the commissioners on May 7 regarding county employee hourly wages.

Anderson said her department has had a lot of turnover the last few years. The majority of the turnover is due to people leaving for higher paying jobs. She is having a hard time replacing those people because of the hourly wage offered by the county. At the time of the meeting, the assessor’s office has two openings.

 “I think we have a real great benefit package but the hourly wage is what I think turns a lot of them off. I had two people that came in for interviews. Its kind of a wake up call for me, I guess. What they are getting paid out there.”

She presented a letter and an email to the commissioners from people who turned down jobs in the assessor’s office. Those people stated in the letters that they couldn’t afford to take a cut in pay.

One of the applicants was offered $13 an hour to start. Her salary would go up to $15 once she passed a required course. Anderson sent both applicants a document that the county clerk’s office provided showing a break down of the salary package, which included benefits. She said that it still wasn’t enough for either applicant to change their mind about coming to work for the county.

The applicant’s letter said, ”I regret that I must decline your offer. I’ve worked hard for 25+ years to get where I am at in salary. I feel my time and capabilities are worth more than $13 per hour. I’m sure you can understand with the salary you are receiving how devastating to a household budget a decrease from $19.25 per hour to $13 per hour would be. When I applied, I had expected the county would pay their employees reasonably, as they are critical to the county and its responsibilities.”

The email from the second applicant noted that she is making $19 per hour. Although the insurance packet at the county is a step up, she doesn’t believe she could make ends meet with $13 per hour.

Anderson showed the commission a recent manager help wanted ad from McDonalds. The hourly wage was $11-$18 an hour.  She said it was just something fun to show them. She knows that the county has a lot more to offer.

Anderson replied, “Since I was elected in 2007 our office is operating with a lot less employees due to improvements we made. Basically, the GIS map server helps a lot with the public helping themselves.” She continued by saying that the office had become more efficient. For example they no longer have to tag every mobile home in the county.

According to Anderson, the office has a huge workload ahead, including meeting the Wyoming statue that states the assessor’s office is to physically inspect all real properties within their jurisdiction at least once every six years.

Commissioner Deb Craft asked Anderson how long it would take employees to get through the required courses so that the hourly wage can go up.

Anderson gave the commission a handout showing what an employee would need to do to obtain “Permanent Certification.” This certification is required for the duties of the office. The employee must successfully complete Course 101 plus 90 hours of Core Education Courses with a passing grade and take a 15-hour online Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice.

The 101 Course plus the additional Core Education Courses requires employees to attend 120 total hours of education away from their homes/families. To maintain the certification an employee needs to complete a minimum of 28 hours of accredited education every two years.

Anderson gave the commissioners a wage proposal, which would start new employees at $15.25 per hour. The proposal then showed increases after each required course was completed.

Commission Chairman Felix Carrizales asked what other counties were paying for comparable jobs. Anderson said that in Park County no one makes under $40,000. Carrizales said he felt like that was not comparing apples to apples. He asked about the comparable jobs in Hot Springs, Weston, Niobrara, Platte, etc.

He also asked if the customer service demands in the assessor’s office are as great as they are in other county offices. The example he gave was the treasurer’s office, which has people coming in all day long and some of those customers not being happy when they come in or when they leave.  He continued by saying that when he has gone in county offices in other states, the wait time for customers can be hours. In Big Horn County that doesn’t happen. Perhaps county employees can be paid $19 per hour, but do with one less employee.

Anderson said that the over-the-counter work her staff has to get done is small when compared to the work required by state statue. Although right now there is a lot of counter work because the assessment reviews went out in April. She continued by noting that when the staff goes into the field it has to be in teams of two. Also that leaving just one person in the office isn’t efficient.

Carrizales continued that counties all over the state want to raise taxes. He is against that. “I think we’ve been good. We’re looking at other things in this county than spending money. Why are we different when we are the poorest county in the state? Other counties are saying we need more revenue.”

He recalled a few years ago when money was really tight and two of the county department heads said if necessary they would go down to a skeleton crew. He told Anderson that the county couldn’t afford a $19 per hour wage at this time.

County Cerk Lori Smallwood provided a benefit break down for full-time county employees. The benefit package includes medical insurance (medical, vision and dental coverage), Wyoming Retirement, sick/vacation leave, paid holidays, two personal days, MASA (air and ground ambulance service at no cost to the employee).

Smallwood said that by federal labor standards the county is required to offer benefits to anyone who works over 30 hours a week. Big Horn County ranks seventh out of the 23 Wyoming counties for employee benefits.

Anderson said she understands that the benefits offer vision and dental, which is a step above most insurance coverage around here. But she would still like to start out at a little more than $13 per hour. Craft said, “Your office is set aside to a certain extent by the demands of education you are required to have. It makes it a little different.” She also noted that with her business, which is manual labor, the hourly wage is between $17 and $22 per hour. The benefits are minimum package with a high deductible policy. Even at that rate, they have a hard time competing with other companies in larger population areas. This is what they have to do to keep employees as a small business.

Carrizales said that the argument about education and pay has come before the commission before. It came from the county attorney’s office.

Deputy attorney Kim Mickelson added to the discussion by noting that this county has 13 communities while most counties have one or two. It makes this county unique and the county jobs more difficult due to travel time, etc.

Smallwood gave an example of what county employees are making with their benefit package included. The benefit package for the employee claiming a single deduction was almost 52 percent of their wages. The benefit package for an employee on the family plan was 114 percent of their wages. The salary/benefit package for that single employee is nearly $50,000. The employee with the family plan’s total package is just over $70,000 a year.

Carrizales said that while he would like to give everyone a raise, he feels it isn’t the right thing to do. There are farmers and ranchers in the county that are struggling, that don’t have insurance and would be upset if raises were given at this time.

Anderson said she understands because she is married to a farmer. She also hears from the other side that says to her, “That’s what you pay your employees?” She also believes that to keep good employees, you have to pay them. To hire good people, you have to pay them.

Smallwood said that the issues brought to the commission are not limited to the assessor’s office. The county could change the benefit package, but making changes will have to weigh both sides of the issue. Some employees will not be happy with any change in the package. The county could pay higher wages with a reduced benefit package.

Craft said that while she appreciates the benefits, you can’t buy groceries or pay rent with them. “I’m hearing both sides. But when a person is making $13 an hour they are getting a great benefit package. It’s great when you use it but I can tell you I never make my deductible and I hardly ever go,” Craft added.

  No decision was made but all agreed that the discussion would continue.