Summit County’s sales taxes are beating 2019 levels
Councilors debate spending proceeds on additional employees
Summit County is on track to receive more than $1 million more in sales tax revenue this year than it had anticipated, a pace that took budget officials by surprise and is beating pre-pandemic levels.
“We didn’t have the impact on our local economy that we had thought,” Matt Leavitt, Summit County’s finance director, told the County Council on Wednesday about the effects of the pandemic. “Things are continuing to go better this year than they were in 2019, the non-COVID year, let alone 2020.”
The council approved using those proceeds as well as $400,000 in federal COVID-related money to fund a $1.6 million compensation package that will result in raises for county employees, as well as additional funding for five positions. But the approval wasn’t without disagreement.
Councilor Roger Armstrong, for one, questioned the wisdom of adding more county employees, a point he had also raised in recent budget discussions.
Councilor Doug Clyde, meanwhile, cast the only dissenting vote on the budget amendment, indicating it didn’t go far enough because it didn’t include funding for additional code enforcement officers.
Armstrong has taken issue with the county’s hiring practices, advocating for hiring third-party consultants or contract employees for specific projects rather than full-time positions. It is hard to downsize the government once it has been enlarged, Armstrong has argued, something that likely would involve laying off employees when economic times are tough.
“We have a responsibility to manage the money better,” Armstrong told his fellow councilors. “… It’s our job to manage the resources that we have. We’re adding more bodies. Those bodies in about a year are going to look up and say, ‘Well, you know what, this is a tight labor market, you need to pay me more.’”
The other councilors indicated the positions were necessary additions, and Armstrong said there was enough merit in the new positions that he voted for the amendment despite his concerns. The positions include a landfill operator, a public lands manager, a building inspector and a multimedia coordinator, and transitioning the emergency manager position from part time to full time. Some of the costs are anticipated to be offset by other funding sources, including grants.
Armstrong indicated the process to determine whether to hire additional employees was not undertaken with enough rigor.
“We have not gone through any kind of a formal assessment that I can see that talks about consultants, that talks about possibly other ways to manage this process other than … anecdotal testimony,” he said.
Armstrong pointed to the county’s High Valley Transit District as an example of an alternative to direct hiring. High Valley Transit contracted with Via Transportation to establish its new transit service, with the consultant taking on the planning, hiring and operational tasks that the district would otherwise have been responsible to provide.
For a position like the public land manager, who would work to reduce catastrophic wildfire risk, Armstrong suggested a consultant might be considered.
“When these kinds of issues become national issues, experts tend to form their own companies and provide these kinds of services,” he said. “So, I get it, you guys want to go in a different direction, but my point is, there may or may not be somebody, a Via-like company, to do wildfire mitigation forest management, but we haven’t looked.”
Consultants might be a less expensive option because their direct employers cover benefit packages, like health insurance. Their contracts may also be allowed to lapse, something that might be more palatable than laying off employees, Armstrong has indicated.
The county has had high turnover amid the pandemic, something Council Chair Glenn Wright said was unsustainable. That was part of the motivation to approve across-the-board merit raises and a 4% cost-of-living increase, both of which were part of the $1.6 million budget amendment.
Officials have questioned whether that’s enough for employees to afford to live in Summit County, and whether compensating them enough to do so is an attainable goal.
According to Leavitt’s presentation, the county has 376 full-time and part-time employees. Between January 2020 and April 2021, 55 county employees left their jobs.
“We’re chasing a runaway train and we’re loading more cars on it as it’s running away,” Armstrong said. “… I don’t think we’re doing it the right way. It feels like every time we turn around, the county manager’s office is coming to us and saying we need more bodies. We need to ask ourselves to start prioritizing what we’re doing, because it’s not an endless pot. And we’re either going to have to manage what we’re asking or we’re going to have to do a tax increase to pay for all those things we’re trying to get to.”
In a report accompanying Leavitt’s presentation to the council, he wrote that he anticipated growing revenues would be able to cover the costs of the new positions. In addition to sales taxes, which Leavitt wrote account for 18% of operating funds, the county’s revenues from property taxes, fees and permits are growing, as well.
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The Summit County Fair returns this week.