Leader Blues

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

TOP STORY >>County tries to keep its employees

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Some officials say Pulaski County can pay one-time bonuses and also create a wellness center to show appreciation for under-compensated employees in the competitive local job market.

They would like to split $800,000—about three-quarters—of the 2007 budget money accumulating from salaries for positions authorized but not filled, County Treasurer Deborah Bucker told the quorum court recently.

An ordinance authorizing that is on the agenda for the October quorum court meeting, sponsored by quorum court members Patricia Dicker and Alan Kerr, according to Comptroller Mike Hutchens.

“We hope to distribute (the money) in November,” Hutchens said. The bill is slated to go to committee next Tuesday night.

It’s been three or more years since county employees received even cost-of-living raises and that’s the kind of thing that affects not only their pocket books but also their morale and the likelihood that experienced, trained workers would leave for better-paying jobs.

Based on last year’s budget and information he’s received so far, Hutchens expects the 2008 budget to come in at about $52 million, about 27 percent for law enforcement, running the jail and medical costs of the inmates.

“We’ve had very favorable comments about the ordinance,” Buckner said. “(Quorum Court members) appreciate employees that are still hanging in, people doing more with less.”

As currently written, the one-time bonus would be 3 percent across the board, according to Hutchens. For an $18,000 a year employee, that would be $540, but the money is likely to be paid half in November and half next year.

“Doc (Sheriff Doc Holladay) is losing so many deputies, (employees have gone) a couple of years without raises, people moved on,” Buckner said. “They’ve had no raise and no indication of anything to come.”

Buckner said there is support on the quorum court, including JP Patricia Dicker, who said early this year that there ought to be some way to get some kind of recognition.

“You can’t run a county without people and we’ve lost some good people,” Buckner said.

Hutchens says it is not a raise, doesn’t create a new floor for compensation and thus doesn’t obligate the county to any increase for the 2008 budget currently being decided.

Buckner and Hutchens say there is general support among some quorum court members also to convert space in the old Bale Chevrolet building into a wellness center, which could pay for itself in time with reduced medical costs.

Prosecutor Larry Jegley’s office recently moved from that building into new quarters and it’s being remodeled to accommodate quorum court chambers and offices.

Buckner said it wouldn’t cost much more to section off a space for a wellness center and wire and plumb it, all with workers from the county’s services department.

Employees are self-insured with the county, meaning the county collects the premiums and pays the authorized medical costs.

If regular exercise and perhaps smoking cessation classes led to fewer claims related to obesity, diabetes, hearts and lungs, for instance, it could offset the costs of remodeling and also buying some cardiovascular equipments such as treadmills.

Buckner said the county could save money by financing wellness instead of sick leave. “We are trying to cut our own costs by creating a place where people can go. Not everybody can afford a gym.”