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Employee morale is problem, say St. Croix Co. supervisors

St. Croix County Board members, concerned about employee morale, have begun looking at pay levels and the employee handbook as well as considering what authority to leave with the county administrator and which to reclaim for the board.

“We share the responsibility for employee morale,” said Supervisor Travis Schachtner, Somerset, who chairs the Administration Committee. He said board members have to keep in mind that as well as representing their districts, they are employers.

Schachtner said supervisors are responsible for county policy, and he has introduced a proposal to determine if the county should revert to the administrative coordinator form of government. The board postponed a vote on that resolution until October.

In summer of 2011 the state Legislature adopted Wisconsin’s Act 10, which severely restricted the ability of public unions to bargain in the areas of pay, retirement and health insurance. At the time, the County Board was making the transition from the administrative coordinator to county administrator, a position that under state law has more power.

In June 2011 the board hired Pat Thompson as administrator, setting as one of his goals the development of an employee pay-for-performance system that gives workers base-pay increases or bonuses as a result of annual evaluations.

At the June Administration Committee meeting, Supervisor Jill Berke, town of Troy, presented data that she said shows workers in the Administration Department, who had been getting low or no raises from 2008 to 2010, have since gotten double-digit pay increases.

Some of her conclusions were that since 2011 Thompson’s pay has increased 26.64 percent, the risk manager’s pay is up 22 percent and the human resource director’s pay is up 15.9 percent.

There needs to be more consistency and equity, said Berke, saying the apparent increases are larger than those received by other county workers.

Her quick check of the spreadsheets shows the numbers Berke is working with include such things as mileage and wellness reimbursements, said Human Resources Director Tammy Funk. In Thompson’s case a temporary living allowance and moving expenses are showing up as pay.

During a later interview, Thompson said he has gotten no raises apart from his original contract with the board.

That contract called for starting pay of $135,000 a year plus a lump-sum payment of $15,000 if he completed a strategic plan by June 30, 2012, and another $15,000 if he developed a system that supported pay for performance by June 30, 2013. Since both those goals were met, his annual salary was increased to $160,000 on July 1, 2013.

Berke said she has been contacted by several long-term employees who have complained that in recent years, they have gotten only small raises.

Since Act 10 was implemented, 7% is being deducted from all government employees’ checks as their Wisconsin pension contribution, said Funk, noting that reduced net pay. Also, she said, the county hasn’t given cost-of-living increases for a while and that’s something that needs to be addressed.

No administrator got the kind of raise Berke’s numbers would indicate, said Funk. But, she said, some of them are among 45 county workers who got pay increases as result of position “re-grades” that were approved in the 2014 budget. Five workers were also given equity adjustments to keep their salaries in line with that of other county employees.

Pay for performance is “very complicated, very messy and can give the appearance of favoritism,” said Supervisor Ron Kiesler, New Richmond.

He suggested showing who got pay-for-performance adjustments. Kiesler also asked whether the County Board or staff creates positions and changes titles and wondered why the county administrator is on the pay grid since he was hired by under contract.

Over the past three years, more and more decisions were delegated to him, said Thompson. He suggested a review of the employee handbook and possibly adding more committee oversight.

Thompson said the prior Administration Committee put his position on the grid, making him eligible for pay for performance. When he was hired the initial terms of compensation were clearly spelled out, but starting last year he will follow same pay-for-performance standards as other employees.

Administration Department workers didn’t get higher raises than others, said Funk, who wondered if supervisors understand pay for performance, which uses evaluation scores to give a bonus, base-pay increase or both to employees who fully meet, exceed or significantly exceed expectations.

Employee handbook

The Administration Committee’s role has been evolving since the County Board voted in 2010 to study going to a county administrator form of government, said Thompson. Over the years, he said, more authority has been granted to his position. Before 2012, the committee had authority for the employee handbook, but later authority for revisions was given to the county administrator.

Thompson said he believes his position could be revised to give the Administration Committee a more a more active role.

“I actually welcome that oversight by the committee,” said Thompson, adding “I think this is the heart of the matter.”

Some things in the handbook are policy and some are operational, said Thompson, asking committee members to review a summary of changes made in the last couple of years.

“I think it was the belief at that time … that most of the provisions in the handbook are operational rather than policy,” Thompson said.

He suggested committee members review a timeline that documents changes to human resources duties and identify the lines of authority they want to address.

Committee members also talked about meeting with a 20-person staff committee. That group includes representatives from most departments and from all county buildings.

The various union contracts had addressed most employee issues, but each contract was different. Since Act 10, said Funk, local governments have had to develop handbooks that cover employee issues consistently.

The staff advisory committee is helping work through that process, she said.

“The focus (of the staff committee) originally was pay for performance and trying to determine how they were working with it,” said Thompson. But now, he said, the group is taking a “global perspective with a lot of different employee/ labor management issues.”

Funk said members were chosen, “not necessarily to represent (other workers) but to bring lots of voices to the table.”

She said some members were appointed by their unions and members were chosen from all levels of workers.

“We really wanted it to be countywide,” she said.

Funk said there haven’t been too many changes to handbook -- it’s more that some things haven’t yet been addressed. She said her office has a list of things to look at.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.

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