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County to look beyond wages for keeping, attracting employees

The county once again grappled with the issue of pay and how to retain county employees at a joint personnel and finance committee meeting on January 9.

Human Services director Liza Daleiden told the committee she had asked that the wage study issue be put on the agenda because her department has concerns about keeping employees because of the wage difference between counties. She said the department just lost an employee who did not want to leave, but took a job with Marathon County and is earning $3 an hour more as a new employee than she did after working seven years with Taylor County. Daleiden suggested for recruiting and retaining employee purposes, the county needs to conduct a wage study to look at what it pays its employees as compared to other counties in the area.

Committee chairman Chuck Zenner said the issue of a wage study has been discussed around the county board. He said the county could do the study, which would cost approximately $12,000, but would the county then follow the recommendations. “If they come back and say we need another quarter of a million dollars for wages, are we going to do it? I don’t want to spend the $12,000 if we’re not committed to doing anything. That was the discussion we had last time.”

Personnel committee member Lester Lewis said he also had nothing against doing the study, but if the county then said it can’t afford the recommendations and weren’t going to do them, then doing the study made no sense.

Lewis said it just wasn’t Human Services that was losing employees. It was happening to other county departments because people don’t want to live in Taylor County. He said it just wasn’t about wages.

Lewis said the county would like to pay higher wages, but where were they going to get the money? “We maxed out on the levy right now. There is only so much we can do.”

He suggested before the county does a study it can’t use, the board have a discussion on doing a referendum on raising taxes so that the county has some money. “We need to have our income increased before we can say we can afford to do this,” Lewis said. “We’re dipping into reserves now.”

Zenner agreed the county took a lot of money out of reserves for this year’s budget.

“And that’s a good thing. I’m not saying it wasn’t the thing to do at all. Of course, it was,” Lewis continued. “But we can’t dip into reserves continually without finding a way to increase our revenue. We need to have that conversation before a wage gap discussion.”

Zenner asked if there were any county programs that could be cut.

“Well. I suppose Human Services could say cut Highway and Highway could say we can make cuts in the Sheriff’s Department. One department can always find cuts in another department. Never in their own, of course,” Lewis said. He added it was difficult to find cuts in the county budget because it hasn’t been increasing due to the zero-increase in the budget took effect in 2011. Before that, he said, the budget could go over a 2 percent increase and than the state took that away. Lewis said there was talk in Madison about reinstating the 2 percent, which he said would help the county tremendously. He finished by saying Taylor County is a hightax county because of its small population.

During the ensuing discussion, committee members had other thoughts of why it is difficult for Taylor County to recruit and retain employees.

Board chairman Jim Metz pointed out Taylor County can’t compete financial with counties like Marathon or Eau Claire. “We could offer an employee a $2 increase, but if one of those counties wanted that person bad enough, it could offer him a $2.50 increase.”

Lewis came back to the issue of people not wanting to live in Taylor County. He said the county has seen instances where people want to live in Wausau or Eau Claire. “It’s why we can’t keep our young people here because there are different opportunities out there.”

Committee member Scott Mildbrand asked Human Resources manager Marie Koerner if the county’s job descriptions placed too much emphasis on two or three years of experience, which excluded recent graduates from college who don’t have that experience. Koerner replied while the county would prefer someone with experience, it does hire graduates fresh out of college and trains them for some jobs.

Personnel committee member Rollie Thums said that’s just the way the millennial generation is. He said they are not 25-, 30- or 40-year employees. Thums said they stay for two, three or five years and move on. He said there is nothing wrong with what they’re doing, it’s just their lifestyle.

Thums also said with the strong economy, the county has a hard time competing with private businesses for employees. He said his granddaughter has a temporary job with a local company while she’s home from college on semester break. Thums said his granddaughter earns $18 an hour and if she agrees to work overtime on weekends, she earns $26 an hour. “And she’s just a college kid,” Thums said. “So how do you compete with that?”

Finance committee member Ray Soper suggested the county conduct an employee satisfaction survey rather than a job study. Lewis asked if it would be conducted by the county or would they have to hire someone to do it, noting that the responses would have to be anonymous so employees will feel free to speak their minds. Koerner said the county has done similar surveys and that half of the county’s employees filled out the survey.

Other non-monetary ideas suggested during the discussion were giving employees more time off, allowing them to work from home once broadband internet service is improved in the county, and improved communications between the county board and departments to let the board know about problems so the county can have more discussions like it was having now.

In the end, the committee felt it had gotten a good start on dealing with the issue. Members thought the employee satisfaction study was a good idea and that the county needs to start having the discussion about a referendum on raising taxes.