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Davison commission chairman defends 3-8 percent raises

Davison County Commission Chairman David Weitala believes the county panel did the right thing in November by raising the pay of all county employees by 2 percent plus 50 cents an hour.

It was the second consecutive year for wage increases of that amount, and the raises came during a year when the wages of state employees were frozen and Social Security recipients received no cost-of-living adjustment.

The raises, depending on individual salary levels and bonuses for long-time service, will give county employees pay increases of 3 percent to 7 percent.

On Tuesday, the commissioners approved identical raises for the county jailers' union.

"Given the way we budgeted, (the raises were) feasible to do this year," Weitala said. "Davison County is fairly liquid. Our growth isn't what it was a few years ago, but we aren't sliding back."

Employee salaries, without benefits, cost the county $2,580,288 in 2010.

With the 2011 increases included, the bottom line for salaries will be $2,721,763, or $141,475 more than last year. When benefits are included, that number rises to $3,622,954, or nearly 52 percent of the county's roughly $7 million general fund budget.

Weitala believes the additional employee compensation is necessary, that the county has good workers, and that it must do what it can to keep them. Commissioners Denny Kiner and Jerry Fischer hold similar views.

The other two commissioners, Gerald Weiss and John Claggett, both voted against the increase, stating that it was excessive given the current depressed economy. Claggett's motion to limit the 2 percent raise to 1 percent died for lack of a second.

No formal, prepared criteria for justifying the raises were presented or discussed in open session prior to a 3-2 vote in favor of the measure.

The same 2 percent plus 50 cents per hour formula that was used for 2010 was inserted into the county's 2011 preliminary budget by Auditor Susan Kiepke, and it was submitted as part of the county's official budget at the end of September. The rationale given at that time was that the commissioners would be able to adjust salaries before the end of the year if they wished to do so.

Weitala is making no promises for similar increases in 2012.

"I think next year will be a different equation," he said.

That equation might include some sort of salary cap, but he declined speculation on how such a cap might work.

While Commissioner Denny Kiner voted for the raises, he also recommended a wage study. That may or may not happen, Weitala said.

"We'll look into a study after the first of the year," he said, "but cost will determine whether we do it or not."

The county last had a salary study in 1993, said Fischer, but institutional memory is thin regarding the details of that report. The study, believes Auditor Susan Kiepke, formed the basis for the county's current salary scale, but she has been unable to locate a full copy of that report.

State's Attorney Pat Smith, who regularly negotiates on the county's behalf with the jailers' union, strongly favors a salary study.

"It will be important for the county to know where it stands. A lot of things are said about a position being 'underpaid' or 'overpaid,' but a lot of that isn't supported either way by anything. I'd like to have something that we could look at and make that determination -- for union negotiations as well as for the rest of the county."

The city of Mitchell has commissioned two wage studies in the past decade.

Human Resources Director Teri Bertness said the city authorized its initial salary study in 2000 and a follow-up in 2005. Each cost about $15,000.

"We wanted to take a look at our compensation and how it compared, looking at internal equity and external market comparisons," Bertness said.

Put another way, the city wanted to determine what it could afford to pay for a specific job, and what other cities were paying for a similar job.

Prior to the study, Bertness said, pay raises recognized the efforts of individual employees instead of comparing that employee's performance against defined job criteria.

The studies gave the city "good objective criteria we use in performance evaluations to justify employee compensation," she said.

Weitala said the extra 50 cents per hour beyond the 2 percent was designed to lessen the gap between more highly paid employees and lesser-compensated workers.

"We're not saying a worker should be paid as much as a supervisor, but there's a big gap there and we're trying to close it or at least get to the point where there's not such a discrepancy," he said, adding he thinks the two consecutive raises have helped in that regard.

Weitala also believes it makes good sense to retain employees. Turnover, he said, costs any business in terms of re-training and lost productivity.

"It's our workers who make this county function as well as it does," he said.