Bonuses for cash-saving employees shot down

Mesa County commissioners this week rejected a proposal to reward county employees with a one-time cash bonus based on their ability to save the county money in the last two months of the year.

A county employee compensation committee recommended a plan that would split 50-50 with the county’s 960 employees any savings in operating funds beyond total anticipated expenditures. For example, if workers were able to save the county another $500,000 before the end of the year, half of that would return to the county’s general fund and half would be split equally among the employees.

Employees, who would have been encouraged to find the savings while doing their best to maintain current levels of service, would have received the bonus in their April paychecks.

Committee members pitched the proposal as an incentive for employees to work even more efficiently and a method of boosting morale.

“This would install a sense of caring and ownership that hasn’t existed in this county for a long time,” said Tracey Garchar, executive director of the county Department of Human Services.

But commissioners who suggested employees should already be doing everything they can to save the county money raised several concerns about the proposal. They questioned the fairness of equally compensating employees who may not be putting forth equal effort to save money and the wisdom of giving employees more money when the county has yet to balance its proposed 2012 budget.

“What we have to lose here are our constituents who are paying for this,” Commissioner Craig Meis said in response to Garchar’s claim that the county had nothing to lose by implementing the program.

The board ultimately suggested revisiting the incentive plan next year and tying it to employee performance reviews.

The occasionally lively discussion that lasted more than an hour Tuesday highlighted the gap that exists between department heads’ eagerness to provide a financial pick-me-up for employees and commissioners’ wait-and-see approach to restoring some of the employee benefits cut during the last three years.

County Administrator Chantal Unfug, who endorsed the committee’s proposal, presented a $130.2 million 2012 budget to commissioners earlier this month, a spending plan that is virtually flat compared to this year’s adopted budget. Meis suggested Tuesday the county may need to trim from the budget pitched by Unfug.

Members of the compensation committee noted to commissioners that many county employees have gone three years without a pay increase. Clerk and Recorder Sheila Reiner said some of her workers are making so little money that they’re applying for public assistance.

“If we can offer them $50, it would mean something,” she said.

Garchar said the county has “tried beating (employees) over the head” in efforts to get them to save money. He argued that future budget savings will come from “innovation that isn’t forced.”

“You never get great things from fear-based initiatives,” Garchar said.

Commissioner Janet Rowland disagreed with Garchar’s assessment, claiming that the money simply “isn’t there.”

“Who has been hit harder than those 7,000 people?” Rowland asked, referring to the 6,616 Mesa County residents who received unemployment benefits in September. “County employees haven’t.”

“Frankly, in this current economic environment, I’d be happy to have a job,” Meis said.

Commissioner Steve Acquafresca said he’d be willing to discuss the committee’s proposal further, but Meis and Rowland ended the discussion by saying any cash bonuses should be tied to individual employee performance reviews.


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