Park County’s employee hiring freeze continues to thaw

Commissioners approve raises for county clerk employees who took on additional duties

Posted 12/3/20

In early summer, Park County commissioners buckled down on their hiring freeze, generally requiring county officials to wait three months before filling any positions that became vacant.

The delay …

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Park County’s employee hiring freeze continues to thaw

Commissioners approve raises for county clerk employees who took on additional duties

Posted

In early summer, Park County commissioners buckled down on their hiring freeze, generally requiring county officials to wait three months before filling any positions that became vacant.

The delay saved money amid a tight budget, but it also caused stress and frustration in some of the shorter staffed departments.

“It’s really hard when elected officials and department heads come and you can just see the stress in their eyes when you tell them they have to wait 90 more days, because they care so deeply about this county,” Commissioner Jake Fulkerson said at a candidate forum in July.

There’s since been a thaw in the freeze.

Commissioners haven’t required a waiting period since late July and — after departments reported falling behind on their work — they have allowed just about all of the positions to be refilled. The exception is in the Park County Buildings and Grounds Department, where Superintendent Mike Garza decided he didn’t need to replace one of the full-time custodians at the Park County Complex in Cody. Commissioners had also proposed eliminating a part-time position by privatizing the custodial work at the Park County Fairgrounds, but Garza said it turned out to be significantly cheaper to replace the worker.

Beyond the replacements, commissioners agreed to add a full-time position to the Park County Planning and Zoning Department to help with an increasing workload; Planner Joy Hill had told commissioners that her office was struggling to keep up.

The board made the decision at its Nov. 4 meeting, in which Park County Engineer Brian Edwards made an impassioned plea for restoring a full-time position in his office that commissioners had limited to part-time.

“Let us operate within the damn budget that we got approved with you guys, that we went through with a

fine-toothed comb,” he said, noting the 2020-21 budget included the job. “And if we have to come back next year, and you tell us we need to cut 50%, we’ll cut 50% and we’ll operate within that budget.”

Edwards added that, “we could have COVID-27 by this time next year — we could have all hell break loose,” but in the meantime, he said, “we need this person.” He said his staff was stressed by a high workload and increased responsibilities.

Commissioners were swayed and voted unanimously to let Edwards and Hill have the staffing levels they requested.

“As much as I don’t want to spend [money], we do need to allow them to do their jobs within their budget,” said Commissioner Lloyd Thiel. However, he added, “I want to make sure that … everybody here understands, come June, we may be laying people off.”

“You know what? That’s life,” Edwards responded. “We get it.”

Elsewhere, Clerk Colleen Renner was allowed to replace two employees in July, including a more senior employee who died unexpectedly. On Tuesday, commissioners allowed Renner to give her entire staff raises, reflecting the different duties and new responsibilities they’ve taken on following their colleague’s death. The two new hires will also get the step increase when they hit their six month anniversary and if they’ve earned it, Renner said. Each step on the county’s pay scale amounts to a 2 to 3.4% raise, depending on the position, averaging around 2.6%.

“I really believe that they all are doing an excellent job,” Renner said of her staff. “And I would like to move them [up in wages] and show them that we truly as a county appreciate what they’re doing and how they stepped up.”

Even with the raises, Renner the county should still realize more than $10,100 in annual savings, because the employees aren’t making as much as the people they’re replacing.

At Renner’s request, commissioners initially discussed the wage increases in a closed-door executive session on Nov. 10. They unanimously approved the raises Tuesday.

“Our people, throughout this COVID deal, have really stepped up to the plate and done one hell of a job for us,” said Commission Chairman Joe Tilden, adding that he doesn’t believe the county has been doing a good job of paying employees what they’re worth.

Commissioners approved one-time bonuses for its 181 employees in July that were equal to about 2% of their pay, but because of budget concerns, they did not approve permanent raises. No bonuses or raises were awarded the prior fiscal year.

While allowing department heads and elected officials to replace employees in recent months, commissioners did decide in November that they will cut employees’ benefits: They nixed a $500 payment that the county had been making to the health savings accounts of employees and spouses who completed various wellness measures, like undergoing blood draws and wellness checks.

The move is expected to save around $78,000 a year.

“We have to start making some trims and we’ve all agreed that somewhere in our benefit package is where a big portion of that’s going to have to come from,” Thiel said at the Nov. 4 meeting.

On Tuesday, Renner suggested that commissioners could perhaps continue putting some money in employees’ HSAs, giving an example of matching 10% or 25% of any funds that employees put into their accounts. The HSA payments have been intended as a way to blunt the impact of the high deductible on the county’s self-funded health insurance plan.

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