La Crosse County has been making a concerted effort to better attract and retain employees, and the county’s proposed 2019 budget reflects that.
In a process that has taken years, the county has been overhauling its compensation system to simplify it, make it more equitable and bring salaries up to make the county more competitive not only with other counties but with the private sector as well.
The La Crosse County Board’s Executive Committee, at a meeting Wednesday morning, endorsed two elements of that effort, unanimously approving a revamped pay scale for the highway department and a three-year union contract for deputies in the sheriff’s department.
The highway department pay resolution asserts the county had no trouble attracting employees before 2011, when Gov. Scott Walker signed into law Act 10.
That legislation stripped most collective bargaining powers from most public employee unions and made retirement and health care benefits less attractive. In the past eight years, according to the resolution, the highway department has had to fill 40 vacancies — with a staff of just under 60 FTE.
“We need to maintain that good asset we have in terms of our employees to deliver the best level of service to the public,” said Ron Chamberlain, the county’s highway commissioner. “Losing good employees comes at a cost.”
For example, the cost of advertising, recruiting, screening and hiring a new employee can be as high as $1,000 per staff member, and losing a fully trained employee is like having $5,000 walk out the door, the cost of fully training some staff positions.
The new highway department pay scale, which has been in the works for about two years, raises the starting pay and puts in annual step pay increases for the first five years instead of having hikes at six months, 18 months and five years.
County Administrator Steve O’Malley said the new highway department pay plan carries an average pay increase of 1.2 percent. That’s on top of an across-the-board pay raise of 1.75 percent for county staff that is part of the proposed budget. That’s better than average for regional government staff pay increases but falls short of the average private sector raises, he said.
The new highway pay plan adds $32,924 to the 2019 county property tax levy.
The 29-member deputy sheriff’s union, meanwhile, negotiated with the county for a new three-year contract that includes a one-time base wage adjustment of 1.5 percent and includes annual pay increases of 1.75 percent. The estimated cost of changes to the contract are $69,000 for 2019, $39,000 for 2020 and $40,000 for 2021.
Law enforcement union members retained their collective bargaining rights under Act 10, something that still rankles Board member Monica Kruse. “The fact that these people were able to bargain for their contract whereas the highway department people were not is inherently unfair,” she said.
O’Malley said his hope is to be able to offer that same 1.75 percent annual pay increase deputies are getting to all county employees in 2020 and 2021, too.
“We want people to make a long-term commitment to come work for the county,” O’Malley said. “It’s a great place to work.”
County Board Chair Tara Johnson lauded O’Malley and the human resources department for their work to revamp county pay. With the highway staff completed, all departments are done now except for the salaried department heads, and the 2019 budget includes money to hire a consultant to start analysis of those wages.
“I hear in the community a lot about how difficult it is to find and retain good employees,” Johnson said. “I applaud the work we are trying to do to correct our system so that we are competitive in a really competitive hiring market.”
The committee unanimously approved donating another $100,000 — in addition to a previous $250,000 donation — to the city of La Crosse’s Trane All-Abilities Park, a $6 million project for which almost $4 million has been raised so far.
The committee also approved a resolution calling for the state to increase funding for county child support agencies by $1.5 million in each year of the 2019-20 biennium. The state has not increased funding levels in 10 years, and the counties would get an extra bang for the buck because the federal government matches every dollar provided by the state with another $2.