Do county employees deserve a raise?

Posted at 7:46 AM, Nov 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-20 07:46:49-05

The chance for Hamilton County’s employees to earn a bigger salary next year hinges on the decision of three men.

For thousands of county workers, it might not matter how well they performed their job or how many years they’ve worked here for them to earn a raise.

What will matter, instead, is if the county’s three commissioners decide they’ll provide money in next year’s budget to make those raises happen.

Next year could mark the first time in nearly a decade some county employees start the year with a bigger salary. The county hasn’t allowed non-union employees the chance for a merit raise at the start of the year since 2007.

Since then, commissioners have granted merit raises in the middle of the year twice; a mid-year raise allows the county to save money because they didn’t have to pay the new salaries for a full year. 

Some employees are getting restless and wonder if they’ll ever get a shot at making more money if they stick around in their county job, said County Administrator Christian Sigman in an interview this week.

“Would you stay in an organization if you knew, today, that in the next nine years there were only going to be two raises?” Sigman said.

Sigman proposed all non-union, county employees – 3,000 of them – be eligible for a 3 percent merit raise next year in his budget. Merit raises are based on performance, though no one interviewed for this story could recall a time the county granted a cost-of-living increase.

That will cost the county about $2.1 million – one percent – of its $209 million budget.

Still, some commissioners aren’t sold on the idea.

Commissioner Chris Monzel, a Republican, said he doesn’t support across-the-board merit increases for county employees in his budget proposal. Greg Hartmann, the other Republican commissioner, is also wavering on the proposal. He needs to find the money to make raises work, he said.

“I will tell you that county-wide raises are not in my top priority for this budget,” Hartmann said.  

The issue is complicated and not all county employees are in the same situation.

Some county employees, represented by unions, have been given raises in the last decade. Other offices run by elected officials have also seen raises in recent years.   

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, for example, increased pay for dozens of staffers this year. His office gets money from the county budget but he can essentially override the commissioners’ budget to do things like give out raises.

Roughly 170 employees were given raises in the prosecutor’s office that ranged from $500 to $9,300. Those salary increases were made because Hamilton County’s pay didn’t stack up compared to the state’s two biggest counties – Cuyahoga and Franklin, said spokeswoman Julie Wilson.

Hartmann said he supported those raises.

“They had a real issue retaining prosecutors,” Hartmann said. “Joe (Deters) did what he did to make sure he has good, smart lawyers.”

Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes, a Democrat, also gave out $200,000 in merit raises to his staff in October. He didn’t want to wait for next year for his employees to get a salary increase and he found money in his budget to give the raises early.

“We’ve had three raises in eight years,” Rhodes said. “They (the commissioners) always seem to find money for the goddamn bars at The Banks and the port authority but when it comes to basic services, they want to play games.”

(The county has provided incentives and loans for development at The Banks in Cincinnati).

County agencies like the sheriff, auditor or prosecutor’s offices aren’t as beholden to the commissioners’ budgets, in part, because they’re elected by the voters and not hired or fired by the commissioners.  

Other offices, like Jobs and Family Services or Environmental Services, have to stick to the budgets the commissioners provide.

Concerns about the county’s employee pay prompted a study last year that found employees were making, on average, about 16 to 18 percent less than workers in similar positions, said Cheryl Keller, the county’s human resources director.

Employees are noticing, too.

“I have heard from every department under the board that they are losing employees to other employers, both in the public and private sector, for more money,” Keller said.

Sigman said he’s seen county employees leave to work for smaller government organizations – such as the city of Blue Ash or Delhi Township – because they were offered more lucrative pay.

“There are people who work for Hamilton County government who get food stamps,” Sigman said.

Commissioner Todd Portune, a Democrat, is worried about salaries in the Jobs and Family Services office. Portune told WCPO Insider he supports merit raises for most county offices but not for elected officials, like the prosecutor’s office, that gave out raises already this year without the commission’s blessing.

Hamilton County Jobs and Family Services workers make about 20 percent less compared to people in similar positions, according to a pay study the county conducted in 2014. About 208 non-union employees would be eligible for a raise, if commissioners allow it. The agency is funded with state, federal and local levy funds – not the county’s general budget – but workers there can’t get raises until the commissioners OK salary bumps for all county employees.

Even when – or if – commissioners approve raises, it still won’t be enough to bring some county employees up to speed, said John Bruggen, the county’s budget director.

“If everyone else in the region is more or less getting a 3 percent raise, then our 3 percent raise does nothing to address the pay inequity,” Bruggen said.