HR director said funding source still needed

Albany County commissioners adopted a new step and grade plan for their employees’ salaries as part of the budgeting process for the 2019 fiscal year. Implementing that new plan could take multiple years, however. In recent years, department heads and elected officials have had much larger discretion over the pay each employee receives.

Commissioners tried instituting a step and grade plan a decade ago, but it fell apart within years after supervisors didn’t follow the guidelines, Albany County Clerk Jackie Gonzalez said.

“It was never adjusted or re-implemented,” she said.

Commissioner Heber Richardson said the new plan will “deal with the glaring disparity” in current employee pay.

“I know that when I was first elected, I would have really appreciated if there was something like this in place as a structure,” he said.

The new plan comes on the heels of a wage comparison study conducted by the county’s human resources director, Christina Snowberger. As part of that study, Snowberger compared the county employee salaries to their peers in state government and the city of Laramie. Data from Goshen, Sheridan and Converse counties were also used.

That study found 13 of the county’s roughly 130 employees were underpaid.

The commissioners’ first action in implementing the new salary plan was to give those employees a total of $90,000 worth in new compensation, including benefits.

Before the commissioners approved the new budget this month, Snowberger also consulted with all department heads and elected officials in county government to determine what other employees should receive wage hikes.

That survey revealed 53 more employees who supervisors think should earn more pay than they currently receive.

Those requested raises would cost the county another $256,000 annually, something commissioners aren’t sure they’ll be able to afford for the 2020 fiscal year.

Snowberger urged commissioners to develop a fund earmarked for future raises in accordance with the plan.

“In order for this to work, you have to make that a priority,” she said. “Even if it’s $25,000 that you set aside for the pay grade, that’s better than nothing. … It’s hard to adopt a pay-grade scale and not have the money to do this.”

While the plan only provides guidelines, not automatic boosts in pay, County Attorney Peggy Trent stressed “if you adopt a plan, employees are going to expect funding.”

And though the county board hasn’t summoned a way to fully implement the plan, Richardson said he’s “optimistic” future commissioners won’t disregard the directive.

“I only expect revenues to go up,” he said. “Just because we don’t set aside a certain amount of money doesn’t mean we’re non-committal. If we were not to adopt this at all, we would be sending a distinct signal to our employees that we’re not really going to do anything.”

Under the plan, department heads and elected officials will have the discretion to choose who gets raises based on their seniority and job performance.

Employees have not received a cost of living adjustment in several years. Gonzales said she’s pleased the plan means “there’s a going to be a reward at the end of this” for employees.

“When my employees understand this process, it’s an incentive for them. Everyone wants to strive and to learn more,” she said.

The Albany County Public Library, however, falls outside the purview of the salary plan. Tim Monroe, who sits on the library board, said there also needs to be merit-based pay for library employees.

“There are some workers there who are top notch and others that move slowly,” he said.

Under the new salary plan, Snowberger created 22 pay grades for 69 identified positions within the county government.

The cheapest pay grade is for cooks in the Albany County Detention Center, who can earn a minimum of $22,525 annually under the new plan. The top pay grade is for the chief deputy prosecuting attorney, who can earn a minimum of $76,989.

Employees of all 22 pay grades can eventually earn up to 150 percent of their original salary, based on experience and job performance.

During budget discussions last week, Albany County Sheriff David O’Malley unsuccessfully urged commissioners to provide $15,000 more in raises — outside of the step and grade plan — to be spread among four members of the jail’s kitchen staff. O’Malley said the “professionalism” his cooks bring to providing “three meals a day, 365 days a year, is one of the reasons we don’t have more problems.”

“If (inmates) get good food, they have a tendency to be more happy,” he said.

Commissioners declined the sheriff’s request, with chairman Tim Chesnut saying it would set “a bad precedent” to establish a step and grade plan only to immediately give extracurricular wage increases. While praising the kitchen staff’s work, Chesnut also said it’s “a rarity that people in the food industry get benefits.”

The new plan comes a year after commissioners cut the county’s budget by 19 percent and laid off employees. In March 2017, the county board instituted a hiring and salary freeze amid uncertainty over state appropriations and the federal government’s Payment In Lieu of Taxes funding.

“We’ve hit some really tough times, but we’ve come together to create a budget that’s fair and equitable,” Gonzalez said.

She lost 2.5 full-time positions during the budget reductions and said it was “probably the most trying time that I’ve been a part of in preparing the budgets here for the county.”

“It was hard for me,” she said. “How do you tell someone they have no employment at no fault of their own?”

Richardson praised the resilience of employees during the funding reductions in recent years.

“We have tremendous people who work really hard,” Richardson said. “There’s not a county in the state that functions as well as we do with the resources that we have. We don’t have a lot of drama. People hang in there pretty well.”

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