By WILLIAM LUNDQUIST
GOLD BEACH The Curry County Commissioners approved a salary study Monday to be conducted by the Local Government Personnel Institute in the fall.
The study, estimated to cost about $20,000, could be completed by January.
There was a consensus among the commissioners and department heads that such a study was long overdue. The last one was done in the late 1980s.
After a lengthy discussion, officials couldnt decide, however, the most equitable way of paying for the study, or what to do with new job descriptions before it is completed.
The commissioners and department heads agreed during the budget hearings that there was no longer parity in employee salaries between departments, but no money could be found to pay for a comprehensive study.
Commissioner Marlyn Schafer said Monday that the county had received additional revenue of $8,777 that could be used for the study.
Plus, she said, some of the money departments had budgeted for a 40 percent increase in electric rates could be used for the study too, since Coos-Curry Electric Cooperative decided to not raise its rates.
Schafer said that saved the county $65,800. She said if each department used 15 percent of what it had budgeted for the rate increase, there would be plenty of money to pay for the study.
County Roadmaster Dan Crumley agreed the study was needed, but said since his department uses the most electricity, it would end up paying for most of the study.
Schafer said that was a good point, and one she hadnt thought of.
Lori Kent, director of Home Health/Hospice, suggested departments contribute to the study based on their number of employees. She said that method would be more equitable, and more acceptable to auditors.
Schafer said some departments would be hard-pressed to pay, for example, $100 a head. She felt, however, that an equitable system could be found.
Commissioner Lucie La Bont suggested using economic development money, since the county is the largest employer in Gold Beach.
Schafer said the study wouldnt meet the criteria for economic development.
In the end, the commissioners voted to worry about that later and begin the study as soon as possible.
A letter from the institute said, The information developed in the course of the analysis of your positions, the evaluations, and the salary survey will provide a factual basis for resolving pay differences between positions.
This avoids making decisions solely on personal opinion, the opinion of those organizations included in a survey, or some other arbitrary device.
Schafer said she couldnt continue making decisions about employees salaries without that kind of information.
For that reason, she didnt want to make any salary decisions on new job descriptions before the study was completed.
The study is scheduled to begin in mid-September with the final report due in mid-January.
Human Services Director Deb Wilson said it would be difficult for her to wait that long.
She said she is reorganizing her department in a way that not only stays within her budget, but may actually save money.
She said no current county job descriptions cover the new positions, so she must develop new descriptions within a couple of weeks.
Schafer said departments with revenues outside the county general fund can usually cover salary increases, but the question is if the salary is equal to the value of those positions to the county.
She said that is where the salary study will help restore parity, and why she wants to wait until it is completed.
The commissioners, however, did not fully agree on what the study should look into.
La Bont said, I feel the salary study is needed to find out where disparity is within the county. Were a more rural county. Everybody in Curry County makes less money.
She felt the study should compare similar positions between county departments and not look at what similar-size counties are paying.
Well be sending employees a bad message if they think they will get paid the same as what other counties are paying, said La Bont.
She was also concerned about making departments wait until January to develop new job descriptions.
Wilson said when employees leave Human Services, she reevaluates their positions. She said the salaries could go up or down depending on the qualifications of the replacements.
Sometimes, she said, the evaluation shows the need for a different position somewhere else.
Wilson said the state gives salary ranges for positions, but her department is paying far less than even the bottom of the competitive range now.
She said a key employee is leaving and she will have to make changes this month.
Commissioner Rachelle Schaaf asked her if she could wait until January.
Wilson said she will have to ask some employees to take on new responsibilities this month. She said they might be willing to do so if salary increases are retroactive after the study is completed. She said they would be working outside their job descriptions, which could be a union issue.
Wilson believed the salary increases she had in mind would be less than the study would ultimately recommend anyway.
My goal is getting wages up to the competitive level to recruit professionals and retain them, said Wilson. She said shed had only two applicants for a position that had been open for six weeks.
La Bont said, What do you do? Stop everything until the salary study is done?
Do we never have a salary study? said Schafer.
Im looking at paying less than the salary study will recommend, said Wilson. Im talking about reclassifying positions. Were an evolving business.
Crumley said he had been trying to correct three salary problems in his department. I have the budget, but not the commissioners permission.
He favored having the study look into local salaries and those around the state because Curry County has to compete with both markets for some positions.
Were not on track now, he said. Some positions are overpaid and some underpaid. You have to look at the market to determine which.
County Clerk Renee Kolen supported the study. She said employees are frustrated now because they have not been compensated for working harder and better.
County Assessor Jim Kolen said he would like to make salary changes for two employees now, but would be willing to wait for the study results if the raises could be retroactive. He admitted he should have had the paperwork for the changes ready during the budget hearings.
He likened the current disparity in salaries to a caste system.
I would like to see a policy that would treat them all fairly, he said. He also felt the study should compare salaries in Curry County with those in counties with similar populations.
Kent also urged the study to go statewide. Well get a realistic point of view, she said. Were not the poorest county.
She said Curry Countys pay scale for technical and professional employees is way off. She said departments have to go outside the county to recruit those employees.
Kent praised Wilsons reorganization of her department as innovative, and said, We need to stay flexible.
We shouldnt base a salary on the revenue source, she said. A salary should be based on the job and how well it is done. We need to be flexible with the salary study results, think out of the box.
County Counsel Jerry Herbage said the study would put employees into salary ranges. Within those ranges would be steps.
He said the study may change ranges, but that wouldnt necessarily mean specific salaries would change. He was uncomfortable with promising retroactive raises.
Sheriffs Office Capt. Mark Metcalf said, We have to compare Curry to other counties. The union does that. Its good business practice.
He said union contracts will influence what the salary study does. There will be legal issues in implementing salary changes, he said.
As for holding new job descriptions until the study is completed, Kent said the study would cover current positions, but new ones would always have to be researched.
Schafer said the institute doing the study would give the county the tools to make continual updates.
Schaaf listened to each department head before saying she was bothered by the idea of an unannounced freeze on new job descriptions.
La Bont suggested a cutoff date for new job descriptions, but she and the other commissioners feared that would bring a flood of last-minute salary changes.
Schafer said she would stick with her policy of no more changes until the salary study is complete. She said all employees already received raises this year.
As for letting Wilson or Kolen go through with planned changes, Schafer said, Im digging in my feet on this one. We have to treat all departments the same.
La Bont said departments are different, however, like apples and oranges.
Schaaf said, I would prefer not to kneecap evolving departments. She favored a cutoff date before freezing the situation, but also had reservations about what that might bring.
Crumley agreed. Im nervous about just opening the door.
Kolen felt the same. I want to be a team player here, he said, no special favors for the assessors office.
Kent said the commissioners could set a cutoff date, but allow only the new positions already under discussion.
Herbage suggested the commissioners take time to digest what they had heard. They agreed and tabled the discussion to a workshop tentatively scheduled for 9 a.m. Aug. 15 in the commissioners hearing room.