(Shaun Friedrichsen, Publisher)
At their meeting on Tuesday, the Jefferson County Commissioners began preliminary work on the budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, by discussing raises for county employees.
Commissioner Michael Dux explained that talking about raises is an important first step in the budgeting process because it allows department heads to better plan for their fiscal needs through the year. Commissioner Mark Schoenrock stated that last year, the county gave a 2.25 percent raise to the employees, and that the state is giving that amount this year.
“We checked, and the State of Nebraska is doing 2.25 this year,” said Schoenrock. “The initial thinking is that we’re going to keep the Jefferson County raises in line with what the State of Nebraska is doing. We believe that our cost of living and all the other factors that go into the calculation of that percentage for the State of Nebraska should be pretty similar for Jefferson County.”
While the percentage of the raise may be the same, Sheriff Nels Sorensen asked for a comparison with the average rate of pay for similar jobs in the state. He believes that Jefferson County’s level of pay may be a deciding factor for people who are looking for jobs.
“My question is, where’s their rate compared to what we’re getting paid,” Sorensen said. “That makes that 2.25, there’s a whole lot of difference between what the state’s paying. We’ve got people that go to work someplace else for better money, better benefits. You know, it’s getting hard to keep people.”
Ambulance Director Alan Rosenthal agreed with Sorensen that it is difficult to attract people to work in Jefferson County when the pay is low, compared to other places.
“It’s hard to get a paramedic that will move to town, because with that qualification, you can work in Lincoln, Omaha, Grand Island, no problem,” said Rosenthal. “It’s hard to get someone to move to our community based on, you know, a lower, or even similar wage, when they can live in a larger town like that. Honestly, it’s not like there’s paramedics here. You have to convince someone to move here, basically, when you fill that position.”
Rosenthal noted that no paramedics applied for the opening at the ambulance department, so they hired another Emergency Medical Technician from the area. Schoenrock agreed that Sorensen and Rosenthal brought up an important point.
“Maybe the thinking here is, you know, for special skills and abilities, maybe the board should consider some of these things, because those do seem to be valid points, where with some of these things you can’t just hire somebody off the street to come in and do,” Schoenrock said. “Some of our jobs, you can hire someone to come in off the street and, with some initial training, then they are proficient. But there are also jobs where that’s not the case; they have to come in with a lot of training and experience and education in order to perform successfully.”
Commissioner Gale Pohlmann asked for clarification on whether the county currently pays a comparable rate for positions that require specialized skills.
“When we talk about skill level, I’m assuming that when you hire somebody, you have a wage rate that’s comparable to that skill level,” said Pohlmann. “Or are we way out of the ball park?”
Rosenthal explained that the wages are somewhat comparable, but that the county needs to consider the fact that oftentimes people with these skills are not from the area. He explained that there needs to be a way to convince people to move to the area and fill these positions.
“There has to be some incentive for them to pick up and move here to Fairbury, Nebraska,” Rosenthal said. “I think that’s what we’re lacking right now. I wouldn’t say they’re (the wage rate) out of whack. I’d say they’re probably at the low end of the range right now for what you can get elsewhere. Like I said, it’s hard to convince someone to uproot and move here that has that skill set, because they don’t have to.”
Nels asked if there was a potential for an increase in insurance rates this year, and, later in the meeting, Brad Swiggart, of Northwestern Mutual Insurance, confirmed that there will likely be a 10 to 20 percent increase in insurance rates this year.
“There’s been many years that, once I get my raise, and my take home the next year, I earn less money each year,” said Sorensen. “I know that if your employees think you’re taking care of them, they’re much more happy.”
Although the commissioners will decide which path to take on giving raises at a later meeting, Pohlmann raised a point about another issue that may give employees incentive to continue working for Jefferson County.
“That’s one thing that I noticed, we’ve got a longevity problem,” Pohlmann said. “We can’t solve that before the budget, but that’s something I mentioned to these guys (the other commissioners) that we need to work on. Because I see a 40-year employee at one level and a starting employee, or a three to four year employee making less than a dollar difference. We’ve got to do something about that.”