Crunching the county's numbers
by John Hales
The Times-Independent
Jan 04, 2018 | 2703 views | 0 0 comments | 81 81 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Not a rubber stamp: Tempers flare as council and clerk cross words

It took some doing by anyone’s measure, but the Grand County Council succeeded in passing an $11.7 million general operating budget in time for the New Year. In the end, however, it was employee compensation — both pay and benefits — that drove the budget toward a small increase in the general fund.

It had been that same issue that had driven much of the budget discussion and debate since November.

“It’s been a long, difficult process, but I’m glad we got through it,” said Grand County Council Member Jaylyn Hawks on Tuesday, Jan. 2.

And it was still that issue that drove county officials to disconnect and discord at the special Dec. 27, 2017 meeting the council had to convene in order to adopt the budget before the state’s Dec. 31 deadline.

Whether it was pressure from being under the gun of a deadline, or feeling fed up with what may have felt like a no-win situation with regard to employee compensation, frustration spilled out at the council’s final budget-adoption meeting, leading a dressing down of Grand County Clerk-Auditor Diana Carroll, who serves as the county’s budget officer, when council members saw numbers they didn’t recognize and, upon further examination, insisted they had not authorized.

Council members seemed to agree that they had direction about implementing a pay increase to $14 an hour, and a handful of select other compensation changes. The budget presented to them for final passage last week, however, included line-items indicating that Carroll had addressed salaries across the board, perhaps in keeping with the recommendations of a salary study recently issued.

The council also agreed though, that there had been a great deal of confusion and inability to find consensus and get on the same page throughout the budget process.

“You guys have me so confused,” Carroll said at one point. She insisted she had followed what the council had told her to do, and that the budget was based on compensation numbers she had been using for most of the process. “That’s what you told me to do.”

“No it’s not. It’s not even close,” replied Council Member Curtis Wells.

Carroll and the council argued, with increasing heat, for some time: Did the council provide direction, or did it not?

“You didn’t,” Caroll said. “You guys haven’t voted on anything … what am I supposed to put in the budget then? How do I know what I’m supposed to be doing?”

The council did, in fact, vote on budget directions at the Dec. 18 meeting. They agreed to salary changes by a 3-2 vote. Problem is, the vote couldn’t stand because by statute it takes four votes for anything to pass.

It did indicate, however, a clear “head nod,” as Council Member Patrick Trim put it, in a certain direction — a direction that Carroll did not go.

The back-and-forth between Wells and Carroll was particularly strident, with Wells frustrated that the only recourse for the council, if it was going to meet its deadline, was to approve the budget under the stipulation that certain changes be made before submitting it to the state.

“We just need to make damn sure those amendments make their way into the budget before the 31st,” Wells said.

“Then you damn sure tell me what to do, I’ll do it,” replied an equally frustrated Carroll.

Trim suggested, “I think what we need to do is be really clear in an email to her [Carroll],” to which Carroll replied, “No. You’re going to be clear in your motion before we leave this room.”

Though heated, Wells called the discord, “operational friction,” rather than attributing it to a personality clash.

Hawks agreed.

She and Wells said previous councils had been more detached from the real work of preparing the budget, settling instead on approving (some might call it “rubber stamping”) the budget as prepared by Carroll, for the most part.

“This is my third budget cycle that I’ve been through, and this is the first that I’ve seen way more engagement on the part of council members in the budget process,” Hawks said. “I guess that might be a source of friction … that might be more difficult [for Carroll] when you’ve been used to budgeting without a lot of engagement.”

Hawks said more engagement would be the way to prepare budgets going forward.

“I think in the future, to have more collaboration ... make it a team effort between the council, department heads and the budget officer ... would be ideal.”

Livable wage? Grand's employees to receive $14 minimum hourly pay

The Grand County general operating budget for 2018 will be higher than the budget approved this time last year by slightly more than $281,458 — a 2.5-percent increase compared to the county’s general fund budget of nearly $11.8 million.

And for county employees expecting something more by way of compensation in this year’s budget go-round, a 2.5 percent increase was all they got.

When Grand Council County members approved the 2018 budget during a special meeting on Dec. 27, 2017 — only four days before the deadline for filing a final budget with the state — they included a provision to raise to $14 an hour any county employee not already making that amount (excepting high school-age workers at the county library).

At the meeting, Council Member Curtis Wells called the rate a “livable wage.” But reacting to it on Tuesday, Grand County Library Director Carrie Valdes said, “I’m hopeful this is just the beginning of the process.”

Valdes oversees five employees who will benefit from the pay raise, as indicated from a compensation study prepared late last year. About 48 of the county’s roughly 200 employees will see the pay increase, which, according to the same study, will amount to a few cents to less than two dollars an hour in all but a very few cases. Most of the positions are part-time, such as search and rescue or other first responders.

Much has been made of the compensation study in recent weeks. The survey’s results, made available last fall, showed Grand County employees are paid less than even low market value

With the survey in the hands of council members, many employees hoped for pay raises.

But the study’s results were not delivered to the county until well into the budget process, and Wells said the survey had been the “elephant in the room” because, on the one hand, the timing of it didn’t give officials time to do much with it in this year’s budget; and on the other hand, “There were expectations [by employees] that the salary survey would be implemented entirely during the budget process.”

However, Valdes said the county council was — or at least should have been — well aware of the under-compensation issue long before the survey’s results were known.

Some time ago, she said, the City of Moab performed a similar study. “The city results showed a direct comparison to other local employers,” including the county, Valdes said.

Council Member Jaylyn Hawks said she was aware of the city study. “But the goals of the city,” she said, “may or may not have been different from our goals.”

The pay increases that did make their way into the 2018 budget, she said, were a “first step,” but that the county was going further than the compensation study to explore the issue.

“It would be irresponsible to, in my opinion, take the results of that and not use any other data to come up with an equitable compensation system,” Hawks said.

Grand County Sheriff Steve White spoke to The Times-Independent this week and said low wages are a particular detriment to his department and his ability to keep it fully staffed. He said that many of his departmental employees do the jobs of two or three — with dispatchers doubling as jail technicians, for example.

White is the department head for about a third of the employees who will see pay increases. But, he said, “As far as I’m concerned, all my employees need a raise … I hope the council goes back and makes a concerted effort to look at salaries.”

Wells indicated that’s indeed what will happen, but that will mean taking everything, not just the amount of net pay, into account.

“The compensation survey did not factor in [benefits],” Wells said, calling the county’s benefits package, “A Cadillac. Not a Buick, a Cadillac ... You can only pay what you can pay ... We have a lot of needs for our revenues that benefit the public. Do I want to compensate county employees fairly? Abosultely. No one should be underpaid, but how you measure that is important. We’re not finished yet.”

News Analysis

Department heads ‘cut the fat’

By one analysis of the county’s 2018 budget, there isn’t really much to say after the employee-compensation component is covered — that is, if one is simply giving a broad-brush overview of the budget. Even with the salary and benefits that were included, the budget’s general fund increased by only a small amount.

There may be more to say, however, about the budget’s specifics. That’s why, in coming weeks, The Times-Independent will examine some of the more significant features in the budget, and the effects and implications of each.

But for now, the broad brush may suffice.

The budget predicts a general fund of about $11.7 million, representing an increase of $281,458 from the budget approved last year at this time. In percentage terms, it’s a relatively modest increase of 2.5 percent, and were it not for increases in salaries and benefits, the general fund would have gone down by about $80,000.

“I would give a shout out to the department heads,” said Grand County Council Member Jaylyn Hawks. “We asked them to tighten their budgets, ‘cut the fat,’ is what Councilman [Patrick] Trim would say, and they did.”

But has the county’s fiscal belt — one in which nothing but the barest of pay raises were included, and even a one-percent cost-of-living allowance was abandoned — become too tight? Is the budget meeting the county’s needs?

“I believe it is,” Hawks said, with the caveat that it isn’t meeting county employees’ needs with regard to pay.

In simple dollar amounts, law enforcement and the courts saw the biggest increase in the budget: $247,188 more than in 2017. That was followed by increases in planning and zoning ($94,071 more than last year), the county’s administrative offices ($85,934 more), and community and culture ($13,875).

Other categories within the general fund all saw decreases: facilities and maintenance ($39,006), human services ($11,860), and fire control and emergency management ($9,247). Another category of “miscellaneous,” made up of things that don’t fall neatly in other departments, fell by $98,202.

A chart shows the portions of the budget pie that each of those categories takes up, and what the categories consist of.

Percentage-wise though, the changes follow a different pattern: Planning and zoning is up by 25.6 percent. This increase is due primarily to the addition of a full-time economic development specialist. Law enforcement and courts went up by 4.9 percent, again largely because of staffing needs. The sheriff’s office currently has several positions that remain unfilled, and some classes of employees did get raises in order to retain them. “We’ve had a tough time keeping deputies,” said Council Member Curtis Wells.

County administration is budgeted 4.8 percent higher than last year. The bulk of this increase is due to the fact that 2018 will be a federal off-year election and an election year for several countywide offices, as well as because of a significant infusion into the assessor’s office for reappraisals. Community and culture is up 1.8 percent because of an expected increase in donations from the museum to other agencies. Fire control and emergency management is down by 3.7 percent, while facilities and maintenance is down by 3.2 percent. Human services went down by 2.5 percent and the miscellaneous category is down by 11.1 percent, largely because a $45,000 budget in 2017 for the county’s compensation survey won’t be needed there in 2018, and because no contribution from the general fund to the storm-water mitigation fund is anticipated (the county initially budgeted a $100,000 transfer last year).

That’s just the general fund, however.

Taking other separate funds into account, the total comes to $32.3 million and includes such things as county roads, travel council, library, storm-water mitigation fund, specifically designated grants, emergency medical services, tourism- and hospitality-related taxes, debt payments on the courthouse and library, the Children’s Justice Center and family support services, Sand Flats Recreation Area and the county library.

Copyright 2013 The Times-Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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