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The Columbia County Human Resources Committee approved 1 percent raises for most county employees.

Lyn Jerde/Daily Register

The Columbia County Board’s Human Resources Committee’s 3-2 vote on Friday to release money for across-the-board wage increases for county employees illustrates the ongoing struggle of compensating county workers in times of austerity.

The Finance Committee and the full County Board will still need to approve the resolution, before $160,000 can be released from the contingency fund in the county’s 2018 budget.

If that happens, the classification and compensation plan that governs how much most of the county’s approximately 550 employees are paid will be amended to raise each step in each classification by 1 percent.

At a previous Human Resources Committee meeting, a motion on the resolution died for lack of a second.

Since then,committee member Barry Pufahl of Pardeeville said he has reflected on the matter and concluded that all county employees deserve at least a small increase in compensation next year.

“This is going to be the only way it will be that all employees will get a raise,” Pufahl said.

Some employees qualify for longevity-based step increases, amounting to about 2.5 percent, in addition to the proposed across-the-board increase. Most county employees get an annual step raise on the anniversary of their employment, until they reach step 6 — after which step increases are granted, with satisfactory job performance, every other year.

The $160,000 would cover increases for all employees except sworn deputies in the Sheriff’s Office, who are represented by a union (and whose 2018 contract has not yet been negotiated or ratified), and employees of the Columbia Health Care Center and the county’s Highway Department, whose 1 percent increases are already included in their departments’ respective budgets.

The 2018 budget year marks the fifth consecutive time that the budget is being balanced by dipping into reserves, calling for $1.4 million this year. Corporation Counsel Joseph Ruf noted that releasing $160,000 from the contingency fund would neither increase nor decrease the amount of reserves used to balance the budget.

Committee member Matthew Rohrbeck of Portage said he was torn.

On one hand, he said, it’s good to reward employees with annual pay increases.

On the other hand, he said, it’s getting harder every year to fund all the county’s services. “This budget was difficult for the County Board to swallow,” he said.

Rohrbeck and Committee member Dan Drew of the town of Pacific voted no on the resolution, with Pufahl, Committee Chairman Bruce Rashke of the town of Wyocena and Committee member Adam Field of Portage voting yes.

Rashke said there are two ways, seemingly contradictory, that a county government can fail. It can “spend itself into the hole,” he said, or it can fail to compensate its employees adequately.

The classification and compensation system — designed by the Madison consulting firm Carlson Dettmann — was intended to ensure that the county’s workers get compensation that is comparable to that of other employers in this area. But Rashke questioned whether that goal is being achieved.

“I think,” Rashke said, “we are underpaying some of our people.”

Rashke added that deficit spending is “a reality of life” for Wisconsin counties.

County Board First Vice Chairwoman Mary Cupery of the town of Fort Winnebago said the state-imposed levy limit hamstrings counties’ ability to raise revenue to provide the services that the state requires from counties.

“Where are we going to get the money? That’s the question,” she said.

Field said he thinks most Wisconsin residents want state-imposed limits on the amount that counties can collect from property taxpayers — and even with those limits, the tax burden is still significant.

County Board Chairman Vern Gove of Portage noted, however, that the county’s reserves, which now stand at about $23 million, don’t go down appreciably from year to year because most of the county’s 24 departments consistently return a total of about $1 million in unspent money from the previous year’s budget. Any unspent money goes back into the general fund.

Nonetheless, Ruf said, the county’s financial limitations must be addressed, even as efforts are made to attract and retain high-quality employees.

“We’re going to have to be more efficient,” he said, “or we are going to have to figure out how the county can do fewer things.”

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