Summit County officials support using $1.5 million in federal aid for employee compensation
Package would undo COVID cuts, add 4% across-the-board wage increases
Summit County is expecting to receive $8.1 million in federal COVID-related aid. Last week, the County Council indicated support for using about $1.5 million of it for an employee compensation package that staffers said might help stop an exodus of county employees.
Between January 2020 and April 2021, 55 county employees left their jobs, 17% of the workforce. County Manager Tom Fisher indicated it’s too soon to know if there’s an unusual amount of attrition hitting the County Courthouse, but county staffers told the council that last year’s rate was higher than in 2019.
“We’re noticing it’s taking longer to fill our positions. We’ve also noticed a trend of a higher turnover rate this year,” said David Warnock, the county’s personnel director. “So we’ve got several different perfect storms, if you will, that are brewing and we’re hoping to get ahead of this before it gets too serious and we fall behind on a lot of our positions and can’t fill those.”
Staffers recommended spending about $525,000 on merit raises for the significant majority of employees who were not able to receive them last year due to pandemic-related budget cuts, and another $925,000 for a 4% cost-of-living increase.
The council was asked to provide input on the suggestions and is expected to formally adopt the measures in a budget amendment in coming weeks.
The recommendation to restore raises based on job performance appeared to be uniformly well received. Last April, the council suspended the implementation of merit raises to stave off financial losses expected to come from the pandemic. The raises were budgeted at up to 3% of an employee’s salary. Only a small portion of county staffers — 48 out of 346 employees, according to a county report — received a raise before the suspension.
The recommendation for a 4% cost-of-living raise was met with more pushback, though councilors appeared to support the concept.
Councilor Chris Robinson said he wanted to make sure the county had the financial “horsepower” to keep up with adding $1.5 million to the county’s year-over-year expenses.
“I don’t dispute that we’re in a very competitive wage environment and we’ve had a lot of turnover and we hear more and more of defections to higher-paying opportunities,” he said. “But it’s a big number.”
Councilor Roger Armstrong indicated that retaining employees is complicated and often does not come down to merely increasing their pay. He also questioned whether the raises would be enough to allow county staffers to afford a home in Summit County, one of the recruitment challenges the county government faces.
He said he wanted to see a thorough salary survey to justify the wage increases, which Fisher said the staff was preparing in time for budget discussions later this year.
Fisher acknowledged the compensation package’s size — about 2.5% of the county’s annual operating budget — and indicated the county was positioned well to use its own resources to pay for the salary increases.
Fisher indicated the county’s funding sources, including sales taxes, were performing extremely well.
“We’re going to make every effort to not use those one-time funds to fund this,” he said. “… I don’t want to give the impression that we expect to just use $1.45 million of rescue plan dollars to fund this. I think we should be looking at our ongoing revenue sources and believe that we have the strength to do that, plus do something with pay in the 2022 year, based on the revenues that we have.”
He further indicated that the council would be asked to consider raising property taxes in the next few years.
Robinson also said he hoped to use the $8.1 million in federal aid for “legacy projects” that the county would not otherwise be able to afford rather than for operations.
According to a staff report prepared to accompany the budget presentation, the average annual pay for county employees is $65,327 and Summit County’s cost of living is 37.1% higher than the national average.
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Summit County’s sales taxes are beating 2019 levels, with an estimated additional $1.2 million in revenue. Councilors debated using the money to hire more employees.