COLUMBIA CITY — A room full of furious county employees voiced their opposition to changes to payroll Whitley County Council approved for 2018 at its Sept. 6 meeting.
Every 11 years, the biweekly pay system on which the government operates includes an extra paycheck in the year. Instead of the normal 26 pay periods in a year, 2018 has 27.
The County Council elected to take the normal annual wage of salary employees and divide it by 27 and give a universal $1,730 cost of living raise to all county employees except for the council, County Commissioners, part-time workers and employees, such as the judges, whose wage is dictated by the federal government.
Because of the division by 27 rather than 26, 44 county salary employees will receive less pay per period while performing the same amount of work. Any salaried employee who makes more than $45,000 through the county will bring home less pay with each check than last year.
“To ask employees to work with less wage, in my 21 years working here, we’ve never done that,” ” Environmental Health Specialist Scott Wagner said.
The ordinance passed 5-1, with Councilman Jim Bayman opposing and Councilman Bill Overdeer absent.
Chief Deputy Jason Spencer asked, “so to be clear, some employees will be bringing home less money than before?” The council responded “yes,” which was answered by a chorus of “unbelievable.”
During pay discussions, Sheriff Marcus Gatton requested increases for two employees.
Janelle Schmitt and Jodi Hollenbaugh received new duties in March, equaling a self-reported increase of 30 and 50 percent of their time, respectively. Gatton requested, in line with the recommendation from the county’s current job factoring system and the Personnel Committee, a 17 and 20 percent increase in pay for Schmitt and Hollenbaugh, respectively.
Councilman Thor Hodges disagreed.
“While I am in favor of an increase in pay, I don’t think I’m in favor of this amount of increase,” Hodges said.
Hodges argues that the current system that refactors positions is outdated, and now grants a disproportional increase in pay.
Councilman Kim Wheeler concurred.
“This train’s running away, and we’re trying to stop it,” he said. “We need to get something in place that everyone is happy with, but until then I can’t see a 20 percent raise.”
Implemented in 2002, the current system has been in place for a decade. In recent years, councilmen and the commissioners agreed that it is no longer representative of Whitley County.
However, the system was still in place and being used until recently. Former Human Resource Director Pam Smith was one of the first to have a recommendation from the Personnel Committee rejected. Smith’s last day was Sept. 1.
Gatton strongly opposed the arguments from Hodges and Wheeler, saying, “I can’t wrap my head around how we’ve not taken this system out and these two employees will be the first in the county to not receive their recommended wage.”
At the July council meeting, Gatton came to the council with the recommendations for the two employees, where it passed without issue. In the August meeting, however, Gatton reported that he misreported a number. Hodges moved to rescind the approval until the council had correct numbers.
According to Gatton, this unprecedented decision has wrought distrust in his department and countywide.
“Any time there was a mistake historically it was an amendment not taken away,” he said. “If you don’t think it has affected my entire department, then you’re wrong.”
For both payroll ordinances, Hodges moved to offer a 3-percent increase in pay and make the two Sheriff’s Office positions the first for review once the new refactoring system is in place.
Gatton was not satisfied.
“I watched Brandon Forrester of the highway department come in and get 60 percent for two male positions without issue, and I can’t even get 30 percent,” he said.
During the public comments portion of the meeting, Gatton stood and announced that the two employees decided not to accept the additional duties for only a 3 percent increase in compensation and that the county will have to fill those duties. Schmitt’s duties as 911 Coordinator involved keeping a current catalog of addresses and phone numbers of Whitley County residents. She also maintained communications with the state 911, who provides funding for county dispatch.
Without designating a County 911 Coordinator, the county could lose that funding.
In response to vocal opposition, Councilman Glen Larue suggested the removal of Ordinance 2002-10 which instituted the current system and a halt on raises countywide until a new system is in place. The current wage assessment system came about after receiving advice from Wagner, Irwin & Scheele, which included the formation of the Personnel Committee.
During discussion, County Judge Douglas Fahl stood up and confronted the council, dissenting their recommendation to halt raises.
“You’re going to penalize all county employees because you gentlemen can’t get together,” he asked. “You’re making yourselves look foolish.”
Commissioner Don Amber argued that the commissioners presented council with a new system, but had “a bad feeling about that meeting.”
In other County Council news
• A slew of repairs to the county jail and courthouse were all unanimously approved by the council. They include a $6,033 inspection of a pair of columns at the jail, $16,013 to replace the jail’s walk-in cooler and freezer units, $17,868 for its water softener system and $121,289 for repairs to the courthouse tower.
• Mark Green offered the council to contribute money to the Russel and Evelyn Fahl Aquatics Facility in exchange for equal fees for all county residents. In the current fee structure, a one-year pass for families is $200 for Columbia City residents and $300 for outside families.
“I see this as a quality of life benefit for the people of the county,” Hodges said. He moved to contribute $10,000 on a year by year basis. Ultimately, the vote failed on a 3-3 tie.
• County Prosecutor DJ Sigler requested and received a transfer of funds to purchase a new paper shredder. “The federal government required a new shredder because the current one wasn’t shredding fine enough,” he said.
• Judge Fahl also requested and received a transfer to hire a new temporary worker to assist in the workload for Civil Court, freeing time for the Criminal Court workers.