Park County’s 181 eligible employees will not be getting a permanent raise in the near future, but certain employees will be receiving a one-time bonus.
That was the decision coming out of an emotional back-and-forth discussion during the Park County Commissioner meeting on Tuesday.
“We have single moms working for $32,000 per year, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Friday,” county clerk Colleen Renner said.
The commissioners came to the decision as a compromise to chairman Joe Tilden’s original proposal to give a 2% cost-of-living adjustment for all employees.
“I don’t think this is what anybody wants, but it’s where everybody needs to be,” commissioner Dossie Overfield said.
Instead, the 2% wage increase, or around $200,000 in funding, will be divided among each department’s wage budget as well as the libraries, leaving it up to department heads and elected officials to determine which of their employees get the bonus, and how much.
“It buys bread, it’s green,” commissioner Jake Fulkerson said. “Let the department heads make a decision on how to disperse it. All it is is flexibility to them.”
The commissioners also extended a blanket 2% wage bonus to all department heads.
Since elected officials and their deputies have their salaries set in a state statute that only can be changed every four years, they will not be receiving any of the bonuses.
But also approved was more than $34,000 in permanent merit raises for eight employees from six different departments. This came after separate executive session meetings held with department heads.
Fulkerson and commissioners Lloyd Thiel and Lee Livingston said they could not support a COLA for all employees because of the economic uncertainty this coming fiscal year will bring.
“Sometimes this job, it really sucks,” Fulkerson said.
Still, Livingston and Fulkerson said they would like the possibility of a COLA revisited in early 2021.
Tilden reiterated multiple times during the meeting the county’s proposed budget for the 2020/21 fiscal year was made with a COLA built in, and the county should take advantage of the money it has now to institute the raise.
“We’re going to be in some extreme difficult times,” Tilden said. “Going down, the future is going to be darker and darker. Six months from now we won’t do it. We have the money today, let’s do it.
“I would rather compensate today and let the chips fall where they may.”
But Fulkerson found this to be the reason for why the county shouldn’t enact the COLA now.
“If things are going to be so bad in six months, that supports the argument,” Fulkerson said. “We’re $2 million upside down and we’re going to raise that to $2.2 (million)? In a declining rate environment it’s unfortunately the employees that take the greatest brunt of it.”
The City of Cody did not enact a COLA in its budget for the next fiscal year, but did put it in place last year along with a new employee pay step schedule, and merit raises last year.
Tilden also argued the county has been unable to keep up with the private sector with its wages.
Livingston and Thiel did not agree with the competitiveness argument as they pointed to the state of the private sector right now.
“I really value our employees … but folks in the private sector are not working,” Livingston said.
It appears the biggest opposition among the commissioners for the COLA wasn’t about paying it out at this time, but the commitment to paying higher wages into the future.
Fulkerson said he foresees the future budget as a “bloodbath,” while Tilden was less glum.
Livingston said he would have supported the COLA had the COVID-19 pandemic and the corresponding economic downturn not happened.
“I would rather hold on now and be able to pay a year from now, instead of laying people off,” Livingston said. “I would prefer to keep the employees that we have.”
A changing world
A 5% COLA was issued to employees in 2018, but that was the first of its kind since 2014, when a 2% pay bump was tendered.
“We’re not keeping up with inflation,” Tilden said.
County assessor Pat Meyer said costs of living typically increase by about 2.5% annually, and the northwest Wyoming region’s cost of living index grew by that exact amount in 2019, according to the governor’s office.
“We need to keep raising the base salary enough to hire good, qualified people,” Tilden said. “We keep asking our employees to do more and more for less.”
Thiel made his thoughts clear about how the fall vote on the fifth penny general purpose sales tax would stand if the county were awarded a COLA.
“I strongly believe this will kill the fifth penny,” he said. “I wish there was a way to do both.”
Tilden stressed he could not let consideration for the tax weigh in on his decision to push for the COLA.
“I have always tried my best to not make a decision based on politics,” he said.
In his reasoning for not supporting a COLA, Thiel said the county may have to cut around 20 employees if the fifth cent tax doesn’t pass, so he would like to focus on trying to retain staff, rather than give a raise now and terminate in a year.
“I’m trying to keep these people next year, I’m trying to look at their employment long term,” Thiel said.
No clear outlook
The county still does not know how much property-in-lieu-of-taxes revenue it will receive this year, which will significantly affect its budget outlook. PILT funding is issued through the federal government as reimbursement for property tax revenue missing from publicly held lands run by agencies such as the BLM and Bureau of Reclamation.
Last fiscal year, the county received $2.07 million in PILT funds but only ended up with about $800,000 in carryover funds, causing it to have to pull about $1.3 million from reserves to balance the budget. As the county’s projected budget stood Tuesday, its carry-over with projected PILT revenues included sits at about $2.2 million, which would be enough to cover the budget and put some money in reserves. This was partially thanks to around a $2 million decline in expenses incurred than budgeted for.
County treasurer Barb Poley also defended the COLA proposition, and said cash-carry over can be attributed to the cost-saving measures employees have taken. The county has had cash carry-over every year since at least 2010.