Mesa County commissioners view employees as disposable
By Patti Inscho
Recently, I’ve been reading about the concerns raised by the Mesa County Board of Commissioners regarding the county’s budget and the hiring freeze they put into effect. As a county employee with degrees in both accounting and finance, I was very disappointed by the board’s comments on the subject of vacancy savings in their most recent press release.
“Vacancy savings” is a term describing the projected savings in payroll of an employee leaving their position for the 8-week period that it normally takes to replace them. The press release on Aug. 8 projected the loss in vacancy savings to be $400,000 since employee turnover was less than they had expected. This is concerning because it looks like the vacancy savings are being used to cover other shortfalls in the budget. In fact, projected loss from vacancy savings is greater than the projected loss from mill levies on the oil and gas industry of $323,000.
Mesa County employees have been under a pay freeze since 2009. Since then, departments have been restructured, positions have been eliminated and layoffs have occurred. At some point the commissioners need to start looking elsewhere for savings. The remaining staff consists of a core of dedicated employees who are willing to continue to serve the public despite low pay and the constant demand to do more with less. To imply that the lack of turnover in employees is a drag on the county budget is offensive. There will always be a degree of employee turnover but we’ve reached the point where we are losing talented, knowledgeable, innovative and important staff members. Rather than value the dedication of the employees who are willing to serve the public under current conditions, our county commissioners see us as disposable; knowledge, loyalty and dedication are of little value, it seems.
Three years ago, after years with a pay-rate freeze, the commissioners agreed to a plan to increase employee pay rates over a period of five years. This pay increase was simply to bring our pay rates in line with other areas of the state. I supported this plan not just as an employee, but as a citizen who believes that competitive pay encourages above-average job applicants. Despite the five-year commitment, the pay increase only happened once.
At the beginning of 2015, the pay scales were adjusted so that there was an average pay raise of approximately 3.8 percent for those at the lowest pay level. Not everyone received this adjustment based on where they fell on the pay scale. Since the plan was scrapped after the first year, we now have employees who have worked for the county for many years being paid the same rate as someone hired last week regardless of talent, knowledge and experience.
In 2015, a compensation committee was formed. The commissioners paid more than I make in a year for a compensation study to analyze just how far behind scale we really are. The results of this study have never been released. Instead the commissioners have decided that they are no longer interested in discussing the matter and have instituted a hiring freeze in order to create vacancy savings to cover the shortage in the budget. This is despite the fact that there are other options that should be considered.
There was considerable controversy over pay increases for elected officials last spring. Each time someone brought up the subject in conversation, I consistently defended the decision. For me it wasn’t just the legal issues, but the belief that it’s important for our elected officials to receive a competitive pay rate so that our county doesn’t become a place where only the wealthy can afford to run for office.
For years, our county leadership has relied on the energy industry as a main source of income despite the fact that it has proven unreliable. The commissioners pointed out that 8 out of 10 of the largest taxpayers are from the oil and gas industry. This history, along with current comments made by leadership, makes me wonder if low pay and high turnover is simply a budgeting tool used by Mesa County to make up for the shortfall from oil and gas. Perhaps it’s time to ask if Mesa County, as an employer, is also unreliable.
The Board of County Commissioners’ page on the county website contains a “Strategic Plan” which states guiding values and gives citizens a way to measure success. Perhaps this is a document we should review since, by the County Commissioners’ standards, this doesn’t look like success.
Patti Inscho is the operations manager in the Elections division of the Mesa County Clerk and Recorder’s Office.