For Mesa County, economy of cuts

Faced with declining revenue, increasing demand for county services, and pressure to trim the budget overall, Mesa County Administrator Tom Fisher decided in April to cut the number of county director positions from seven to three. Two longtime county employees were let go in the process, saving some $350,000 in the county’s 2015 budget.

But it cost the county more than $100,000 in severance pay and benefits paid out to see the organizational changes through, The Daily Sentinel has learned.

Fisher said former Finance Director Marcia Arnhold negotiated a buyout from the county of $53,550 in severance pay, $4,896 in medical benefits cash equivalent, and more than $1,600 in a retirement match. Arnhold worked for the county in a number of capacities for nearly 29 years, Fisher said.

Former Human Resources Director Sandy Perry, a county employee for 11 years, received a package that included $39,363 in severance pay, a retirement match of more than $1,180, and a medical benefits payout of nearly $2,540.

Both separation agreements became effective on July 4.

“There’s a balance between, how do you make a good business decision and deal with that in a responsible way ... and how do you make sure that an employee who is leaving because of no cause of their own (is treated well),” Fisher said Tuesday.

“(The organizational goal) of achieving savings for future budgets is achieved,” he said about the severance agreements.

Bringing county employee pay more in line with the wider job market — Fisher said the county pay gap is about $8 million — is an effort a long time coming, and trimming the management layer as Fisher has should help the county narrow the gap over a five-year period, he believes.

“I think all the leadership of the county has come to the realization that if we’re going to bring pay back (and have) certain allowances for increased pay back to employees, without increased revenue, it has to come from our existing resources,” Fisher said.

Two of the director positions jettisoned in the plan won’t require severance agreements, as those employees have caught on in other jobs with the county. Former Director of Regional Services Donna Ross begins a new job this month in the Mesa County Clerk and Recorder’s Office, and Mesa County Executive Director of Animal Services Penny McCarty will keep her position but now reports to the Criminal Justices Services Division, headed by Dennis Berry.

Under the reorganization, former Director of Public Works Pete Baier has transitioned to a new position as deputy administrator for operations, a job to which he formally applied.

That also goes for former Information Technology Director Frank Whidden, who was hired as deputy administrator for support, a broadly tasked position that includes finance, human resources, purchasing, facilities and fairgrounds departments.

The management shake-up, which in the end meant four prominent female directors were either let go or reassigned to jobs below the director level, has left the county open to criticism.

“I understand the criticism on the surface,” Fisher said, noting both Baier’s and Whidden’s jobs were open to other applicants. “I think, however, that below the surface, if you really look at our organization, there is a lot of opportunity for everybody here.”


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