The Challenges of County Salaries

This week in Latah County, a meeting scheduled for fifteen minutes on the commissioners’ agenda on Tuesday, December 12th, developed into over an hour of discussion as the commissioners worked to come to a decision about proposed salaries for Latah County employees, highlighting the county’s present financial constraints and potential difficulties going forward.

Discussion of the proposed salaries began with a summary from Commissioner Kathie Lafortune regarding the various changes and considerations to be incorporated into the salary plan, which were to be effective as of December 1st, 2023, if it were adopted. These changes were influenced by payment plan recommendations taken from the recent Ameriben study which the county had conducted over the course of the past year. They included among other things the adoption of a compa-ratio (a formula used to measure employee salaries against the range midpoint for their position or similar position at other companies), a new position for the Planning and Building Department, and various changes to salary increases based on the length of time a given employee had served with the county. 

Due to financial constraints on the county, both from the ongoing work on the Kohberger case as well as from inflation, Commissioner Lafortune explained that the county was unable to offer their employees a Cost Of Living Adjustment (COLA) with these changes, and that the county is already dipping into financial reserves to make these changes possible. Going into the future, however, both a COLA and a compa-ratio should be able to be offered by the county as part of employee salaries. This summary was supplemented by assurances from Commissioner John Bohman and County Clerk Julie Fry, who both offered to talk to employees one-on-one who had additional questions about the reasons for the changes.

A number of county officials sat in the audience at the meeting and offered their questions and opinions on the matter. County Treasurer BJ Swanson began by commenting on the poor quality of execution and communication of the whole salary project. In particular, she commented that the proposed salaries seemed not to be tailored to the actual needs of Latah County, and she expressed her disappointment with the commissioners on this point. Commissioner and Commission Chair Tom Lamar responded that he had received opinions both good and bad from county employees regarding the proposed salaries, and commented that a possible action for the commissioners to take would be to delay making the salary changes if such action was needed. Lafortune rebounded, expressing frustration at the last-minute “second-guessing” of the salary plan which had been worked on and agreed upon by the county’s compensation committee over many weeks.

At this point, County Assessor David Sutherland offered the opinion that the salary changes should proceed as planned, but with the county paying ongoing, consistent attention to ways that the plan could be refined and re-evaluated as time goes on. Commissioner Lamar admitted that despite its potential flaws, the salary plan seemed to be the only way forward without new ways for the county to come up with more money in order to do more for its people. BJ Swanson again criticized the plan for having the higher salary increases only for the lowest and highest ranges of employee period time, with little or no increase being made for those in the middle. She argued for the establishment of an HR department who could make these salary comparisons for the county’s employees, and further argued that the compensation committee, in their haste to get a salary plan implemented, spoke up less than they ought to have done in regards to flaws in the salary plan. 

Andy Grant, the head of the Parks and Recreation Department, participating in the meeting via video call, commented that the slim increases in employee salaries were only going to make the employees fall even further behind, forcing the county to catch up even more in the future. BJ Swanson stated that based on this, it would be no good to delay the salary plan without making significant changes to it that better provided for the employees. County Prosecutor Bill Thompson chimed in that the possibility of a staged implementation of the salary plan had not been considered by the compensation committee. 

The conversation then shifted to the possibility of going back to the compensation committee to review the plan, and any changes that could possibly be made. Both the head of the Planning and Building Department and Commissioner Lafortune expressed their doubts that such a review would come up with any new information or a different plan, and would thus be superfluous. A few county employees both in person and online expressed their opinions about the plan, which tended towards a desire for a decision to be made sooner rather than later, even if said decision was suboptimal based on the county’s financial constraints.

At this point, the commissioners moved into a period of deliberation amongst themselves, during which they clarified the conflicts that currently exist in the plan, including experiencing financial difficulty from a number of sources, making all employees feel appreciated for the work that they do, and considering the difficulty of reviewing the numbers again for the sake of clarity prior to approving the plan as it currently stood. Commissioner Lamar asked a number of questions about “next steps” if the changes were to be approved, including making comparison data for salaries available to all the department heads, and seeing the compensation committee meet regularly to refine and re-evaluate employee salaries going forward. After these next steps were discussed by the commissioners, they added language to their motion to include the next steps which were discussed before unanimously approving the salary plan and moving onto other matters.

A discussion of government employee salaries may seem to be mundane and vaguely unpleasant for many people. In this case, such a conversation highlights a unique opportunity for the structure and internal mechanisms of county government to be observed in action. As the county is constrained by a reduced budget in an inflation year, coupled by the costs of a criminal case and limits and changes in state funding, they will work to rebalance the funds which they have in order to keep their services active and their infrastructure afloat. The city of Moscow finds itself in a similar situation, with new means of revenue being explored to accommodate the funds which they’ve budgeted for this year after the recent removal of the street light utility fee. 

For the observant citizen, whatever you think of the county’s actions, such a situation provides insight into the machinery of those governing bodies which are closest to you. Whether you are a county employee whose salary has been adjusted by these changes, or whether you are a citizen who seeks the services which the county and its employees provide, such changes are quite impactful, and ought not be ignored.

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