Mesa County's top administrators received hefty pay raises this year while rank-and-file workers have seen only slight increases, if any, over the past several years.
An analysis of county salaries over nearly five years, some of which came through a Colorado Open Records Act request by The Daily Sentinel, also found that county officials intentionally kept discussions about employee pay away from the public and press.
According to a computer database analysis of salaries for all county workers, from commissioners on down, the county's top three officials saw double-digit pay raises this year. The biggest one went to County Administrator Frank Whidden, whose annual salary soared from $131,000 a year to $180,000 in 2018, a 37 percent hike.
Following him were County Attorney Pat Coleman and Public Works Director Pete Baier, both of whom received double-digit percentage increases. Coleman went from an annual salary of $140,000 a year to $159,996, a 14 percent jump, while Baier was making $125,321 and now earns $145,332 a year, a nearly 16 percent hike.
An analysis of all other county workers turned up some increases over the past several years, but they were relatively low, averaging $1 to $2 extra an hour. About 22 percent of them have not seen a pay hike since 2015, though some did receive one-time bonuses during that time.
Data supplied by the county was somewhat convoluted because it compared paychecks for more than 800 employees from June 2017 with June 2018. As a result, some of the data is skewed because it includes one-time pay, such as bonuses, overtime or, in cases of employees who left county service that month, unused vacation and sick time.
Still, a comparison of those two months showed that at least 30 percent, and possibly more, saw no increase in pay during that year.
Whidden, however, said there have been plenty of pay raises in recent years, most of which have come in the form of merit increases or bonus pay.
"There was a countywide bonus paid in December of 2017 and only five employees did not receive a bonus at that time," he wrote in an email. "During the recession, the board authorized bonuses in some years and one countywide raise that mostly affected lower-wage staff in 2015 ... an effort at the time to raise the bottom of the salary structure."
Another database supplied by the county showed only total pay for all workers combined, separating base pay with other one-time payments and comparing salaries from a single monthly pay period ending in early January 2015 with one monthly period last month. That database did not break down compensation by individual workers. Consequently, it was impossible to see just how much individual workers were making, or who received raises and who didn't.
Though the county-supplied data doesn't verify it, county officials claim that since 2015, 80 percent of all workers have seen a pay raise of some sort.
Whidden said workers have at least not seen a reduction in pay from increased health insurance costs in recent years, something the county is planning to absorb again next year.
He said if the county had not absorbed those increases since 2012, a single employee would have seen net pay decrease by $2,217 a year. Employees who have their entire families on their plans would have seen a net decrease of about $6,000 a year, according to a chart supplied by Whidden.
Whidden said the added benefit to county workers being compensated that way is that, had the county just given pay raises to match that increase in premiums, workers would have paid more in taxes.
That reasoning, though, applies only to those employees who are on the county's health plan.
"In 2019, the increase in health insurance premiums will be over $1 million, or about a 12 percent increase," Whidden wrote in an email. "Not absorbing the increases would have definitely lowered participating staff's pay each year. Keep in mind that under current tax law this is a nontaxable benefit which stretches the dollars a little further.
"The (commissioners) feel strongly that the health insurance is a critical component of the overall pay package for staff."
Whidden also said the commissioners have allowed department heads and elected officials to award merit raises at their discretion. But County Clerk Sheila Reiner said that's not accurate.
Documents from Reiner's office regarding pay increases revealed that the commissioners denied her request last year to increase pay in 2018 for the 33 workers in her office, something those documents indicate the commissioners didn't have the authority to do, according to records obtained through a Sentinel request.
Last year, for example, Reiner attempted to increase the pay for all her employees but was blocked by the commissioners, two of whom — Commissioners John Justman and Rose Pugliese — had received a 20 percent pay hike themselves when they were re-elected the year before.
Those commissioner raises were approved by the Colorado Legislature three years ago, which the commissioners initially planned to turn down but ultimately didn't. Under that law, commissioners who were re-elected in 2016 saw their pay go from $72,500 to $87,300. Commissioner Scott McInnis will be given that pay increase when he is re-elected this week (he's running unopposed).
Similar pay increases for all other elected county officials also will go into effect after this year's elections.
Bette Meininger, who retired from Reiner's office last summer as the office accountant, said she did so because she was tired of not being fairly compensated. Over the course of her 11 years working there, she received only a total $2-an-hour increase. She made slightly more than $38,000 a year when she left.
"I've seen seven people from my department leave since May of this year because of no wage increases," Meininger said. "In most cases, the current commissioners have left it to individual departments to give what they could and, in other cases, wage increase requests have been flat denied regardless of budget availability. I decided to retire in August after being denied yet again."
In a memo from Reiner to Whidden last month, the clerk said she expects to see 30 percent in turnover by the end of this year.
In a written statement to the Sentinel, Reiner said she's tried to find efficiencies in her department, in part, so she could provide equitable compensation for her workers.
"I have continued to find efficiencies, reduce the number of management positions with a goal of reducing my overall budget and find funds to take steps in the right direction for compensation," Reiner said. "Those requests have been denied more often than approved even when I had the budget to cover them."
Documents from the county show Reiner hired an outside attorney last year to examine the legality of the commissioners denying her right as an elected official to determine pay for workers in her department.
The attorney sent a letter to County Attorney Coleman contending the commissioners were breaking the law.
"Based on our analysis and the legal authority cited below, Mesa County and/or the Mesa County Board of County Commissioners are improperly exercising control over the (clerk's) budget by improperly prohibiting the clerk and recorder from managing and controlling the (clerk's) budget as she deems appropriate," wrote David Dodero, an attorney with the Grand Junction law firm of Hoskin Farina & Kampf.
A voice message left for Reiner on Aug. 8, 2015, from Linda Frasier, the commissioners' administrative assistant, revealed that the commissioners intentionally removed discussions about pay raises scheduled for that day in an open commissioners' meeting to keep the issue away from the media.
"Rose (Pugliese) just asked me to let you know that the commissioners want to remove the briefing this afternoon on compensation," Frasier said in the voicemail. "They do not want it to be a public meeting at this time. We usually have the Sentinel person there. She said if you want to brief the commissioners individually, and we don't have to have it posted or don't have to have press there, that would be better."
At the time, Reiner was co-chairwoman of a county panel formed to examine county wages compared to similarly sized counties elsewhere in the state.
County leaders ultimately refused to release that study to the public, prompting Reiner a year later to resign from the panel. The study, which cost the county $33,595, was intended to review all employees' salaries and compare them with current market conditions.
Earlier this year, Reiner decided to launch her own pay study, comparing clerk workers in Mesa County with similarly sized counties.
That report, completed last month, showed that most of her workers were being paid 15 to 39 percent less than three other similarly sized counties, adding that the clerk's office also had the second-highest turnover rate compared to those counties.
In a joint written statement to the Sentinel, the three commissioners said Whidden deserved his 37 percent pay increase because he was underpaid and is doing the job of three people: as county administrator, human resources director and information technology director.
He also does not have a deputy director, like some counties do, Commissioner Justman said in writing on behalf of all three commissioners.
"We felt it was only fair to increase his compensation accordingly," wrote Justman, who is chairman of the commission. "Were he to leave, we would likely have to hire four people to replace him. I think Mesa County is getting a bargain."
On Coleman's salary increase, the commissioners said he hadn't received a pay increase for three years and was being paid below his counterparts in the state's 11 largest counties.
Justman said both men's salaries were based on two salary comparisons — one for county administrators and the other for county attorneys — with other Colorado counties. But the two graphs supplied by Justman showing those comparisons don't cite a source for who did the comparisons.
All of this has left some observers of the way the county conducts its business up in arms.
Dennis Simpson, a retired Grand Junction accountant who has been a thorn in the side of the commissioners over such issues, said the issue of employee compensation has been made worse because the county isn't transparent enough in the way it does its business.
"On Dec. 4, 2017, the commissioners adopted the 2018 budget, which called for no salary increases," Simpson said in an email. "The large salary increases to Whidden et al went into effect Jan. 1, 2018, less than a month after the budget was adopted. The decision to give these raises was not made in a public meeting as required by law. Ironically, executive sessions to evaluate Whidden et al were held on the same day that the 2018 budget was adopted. Obviously, that is where the salary increase decisions were made."