Butler County officials say low wages driving away good employees

A common lament during Butler County budget hearings this month has been office holders claiming they are not able to attract and then retain professionals because wages aren’t competitive.

The Butler County commissioners asked all department leaders to keep salary increases to the two percent target, but several went above that amount saying they are in a tough spot. The Domestic Relations Court is asking for the largest salary budget boost at 5.8 percent for its employees.

Court Administrator Annette Lolli reported that a recent salary survey that compared her court to courts in other counties was inadequate and not illustrative of the true picture.

“In every position our starting salaries were below the lowest pay grade range,” Lolli wrote in her budget presentation. “As an example: starting salaries for bailiffs and case managers, the bulk and backbone of our court, were 2.6 percent lower than even the lowest starting salary for their pay grade.”

Butler County Finance Director Tawana Keels said general fund revenues for next year are expected to reach $101 million but expense requests currently total $102.5 million. That leaves about $1.5 million to be trimmed for the commissioners to pass a structurally balanced budget.

Butler County Administrative Judge Barbara Schneider Carter said her office has had a very difficult time finding and retaining employees, especially because the jobs can be stressful.

“They (court employees) are saying I can go over here and I can make more money and I don’t cry when I come home,” she told the commissioners. “It’s a high stress environment. I think we have some very dedicated people who believe in what we do. If they can be paid fairly, if they can be paid comparably to other positions in the county I think we can retain them.”

Likewise, Butler County Juvenile Court Administrator Rob Clevenger said he is in talks with the county about getting parity for some of his staffers in the clerk’s office and the detention center.

“Our argument is we’ve been patient, we understand the circumstances but we’re not talking about our entire court,” he said. “All we’re talking about is two areas where the pay survey shows exactly what we know it to be, that is there is no parity for what we’re paying as compared to others within county government.”

The commissioners instituted a performance pay program several years ago whereby non-union employees can get up to two percent added to their base pay — set according to job performance — and up to two percent more in lump sum payments. The various departments and office holders were asked to only budget for two percent in their initial budget submissions.

Butler County Coroner Dr. Lisa Mannix also told the commissioners she is in danger of losing employees, hence her request for a one-time, five percent adjustment for two coroner’s office investigators.

“Those are the folks we don’t want to lose,” she said. “It’s a hard job, it’s a stressful job, and if they are offered more money somewhere else they certainly could be gone.”

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Butler County Engineer Greg Wilkens got a little testy during his hearing last week, asking the commissioners to “give me the latitude to run my own budget.” He said his office received a note from Keels telling him she had trimmed his budget by $27,435 to bring the 2.5 percent salary increase to the two percent goal.

“The most important thing we do is not build roads and bridges,” Wilkens said. “It’s hiring qualified people.”

He noted that all of the grant money the engineer’s office receives for projects is due to the work of staff.

“We went through 100 candidates for the few people we just hired. The employees are our most valued asset,” he said. “When you hear about some of the grants we’ve got in here, it doesn’t happen by accident. It doesn’t happen without intelligent people to make it happen.”

He was assured by commissioners that no budget cuts have officially been made.

Butler County Administrator Charlie Young said the county is very cognizant of the challenges office holders and others department leaders face, especially in this economy.

“This is the most difficult thing the commissioners will have to wrestle with as we develop the 2019 budget,” he said. “The commissioners are going to have to carefully consider what’s being asked and what we can possibly do about it. What can we afford.”

The veterans service commission plugged an across-the-board five percent raise into its budget. A salary survey update last year showed most of the service officers earn $1,542 more than the survey’s average, but benefits coordinators are making almost $7,000 less than the average of their peers. The board raised the minimum and maximum salaries in the pay ranges by six percent last year, wanting to make sure they stay competitive in the market.

The board has also seen growth in the number of veterans served in recent years, due to an aggressive advertising campaign. The average number of veterans served per month was 424 in 2014 and this year that monthly average is 523, with a high of 570 veterans seeking help in May.

Veterans Board President Chuck Weber said their mission is a bit different than other county agencies.

“Our biggest attribute right now, our biggest success is by having a trained and motivated staff that will get the job done and be able to handle the growth that we are anticipating,” Weber said, adding that the end goal is not to give everyone five percent raises.

“I think five percent gives us flexibility in payroll choices,” he said.

An examination by the Journal-News of five-year raise data for the veterans board showed the biggest raise — 15 percent or $5,256 — went to a service officer in 2014 when former executive director Curt McPherson was at the helm. The initial budget request was 12 percent for the employee who ended up leaving the job the following year.

McPherson was making $91,420 when he abruptly retired that year after years of discord and dysfunction on the board. Executive Director Caroline Bier was hired in mid-2014 at a salary of $70,000 and has received annual raises — set by the five commissioners — in the two percent to four percent range since, bringing her current salary to $79,543.

The board requested five percent across-the-board hikes — the norm had been two percent to four percent — last year and this year. The only five percent raises have been for a benefit coordinator who was promoted to service officer and two service officers who received their accreditation and the required pay bump that goes along with that, according to Bier.

This year six employees got two percent to three percent raises, plus four employees also got lump sums. Another five people received lump sums alone ranging from $670 to $1,000.

The final budget hearings are scheduled for Monday.

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