County struggles with elected officials raises, while staff pay flat

SHERIDAN — For the first time ever, Sheridan County will have to ask county employees to contribute to their own Wyoming Retirement accounts, Administrative Director Renee Obermueller said. Couple that with no raises this year for county employees and frustrations have arisen.

They were further compounded by the knowledge that elected officials will receive a raise in January 2014, as they did in 2013, as prescribed by Resolution 10-05-015.

The resolution was approved in 2010 by county commissioners. Obermueller said state statute requires county commissioners to set salaries for elected officials every four years, and those set salaries cannot be increased or decreased for any reason.
Last week, copies of Resolution 10-05-015 were posted in the elevators and on a couple walls in the courthouse addition by a presumed disgruntled employee, Obermueller said.

“It’s unfortunate,” she said.

“What’s happened is that employees are feeling like they are going backwards, and in essence they are. We understand the frustration and disappointment,” she added.

Obermueller was surprised by the recent reactions because the pay raise issue was discussed at employee meetings held in spring 2012. However, County Commissioner Steve Maier said the county gave a $1,000 raise to regular employees last year, and it is unlikely that will happen this year.

“That was a stretch because we were already dipping into the reserves, and we decided to make that an ongoing salary, not a bonus,” Maier said.

“We said we need to try to do what we can for the employees because at the same time they’re being hit by health insurance and other costs,” he continued. “We went out on a limb and took more out of reserves than we normally would have to provide that raise last year for the employees.”

Balancing the budget

The State of Wyoming recently increased employee contributions to Wyoming Retirement accounts to 14.62 percent, Obermueller said.
Historically the county has covered the entire employer and employee portions of retirement contributions, but officials felt the increase was more than the county could afford, especially when budget discussions began and proposed expenditures came in $1.9 million over anticipated revenue.

County commissioners discussed ways to balance the budget and decided to split employee contributions to Wyoming Retirement with employees.

“Our first priority was not to lay anybody off,” Maier said. “Other counties are doing that, and that’s the thing we’ve tried to avoid.”

Employees will now be responsible for 4.62 percent of employee contributions to retirement accounts. The county will cover 10 percent of the increased employee contributions. For an employee who makes $25,000 annually, the monthly contribution will be $96.25. An employee who makes $60,000 annually will contribute $231 monthly.

Law enforcement employee contributions sit at 17.2 percent. Law enforcement employees already contributed to their retirement accounts but will have to contribute more. The county will cover 11.9 percent of the increased contribution and employees will cover 5.3 percent. For example, an employee who makes $45,000 annually will have to contribute $173.25 monthly.

Increases of 0.5 percent for employer contributions are expected next year, Obermueller said.

County commissioners offered five meetings Thursday for county employees to discuss the changes and answer questions. Maier said they were well-attended by more than half of the employees.
With employee’s picking up part of Wyoming Retirement contributions, the county was able to reduce the budget deficit to $1.1 million.

Approximately $500,000 to $700,000 will be pulled from reserves, and the remaining amount will be covered by anticipated carry-over cash from the fiscal year 2013 budget, Obermueller said.

Pay raises for elected officials

Resolution 10-05-015, which was posted in a few locations in the courthouse last week, lists salaries for elected officials for the years 2011 through 2014. The resolution was approved May 19, 2010, and set annual salaries for four years, as required by state law.
There were no raises given in 2011 or 2012. In 2013 and 2014, raises ranging from approximately $1,500 for county commissioners, to just over $3,000 for clerk, treasurer, assessor, clerk of district court and sheriff and just over $4,000 for the county and prosecuting attorney were given.

Sheridan County Attorney Matt Redle said state statute 18-3-107 requires that every four years before the election of county officers, boards of county commissioners around the state pass a resolution setting the salaries for the ensuing four-year terms.
“That’s a key ingredient; you can’t raise your salary while you are in office. If salaries are raised at all, it’s prior to election,” Maier said.

That means anybody who is already in office when salaries are set can’t see the immediate benefit of an increase.

For example, in spring 2014 when salaries are set for the next four years, Commissioners Mike Nickel and Tom Ringley won’t receive any raise that is given since they will be in the middle of their term.
Commissioners Terry Cram, Bob Rolston and Maier will have to decide if they will run for re-election or not, but whoever fills their three open positions next year will receive the four years of salaries that are set next spring.

The same will hold true for all other elected officials.
“People need to remember that the commissioners are setting salaries for the positions, not necessarily the people in the positions at that time,” Obermueller said.

In 2008, the commissioners did a market analysis to make sure county employee wages were similar to comparable counties like Park County.

In 2010, they did another analysis to examine salaries for elected officials. Since many elected officials make a career out of their position, the commissioners wanted the wages to be competitive and attractive, Maier said.

“We have to look four years out,” Maier said.
In 2010, the economy in Sheridan was starting to go down, so commissioners decided there would be no raises for elected officials in 2011 or 2012. At that time, it was believed that activity at Decker Mine would increase — thus increasing sales and property taxes — by 2013 and 2014.
“We all felt the economy had pretty well bottomed out,” Maier said. “That forecast didn’t hold either.”

Bound by state law

When 2013 was approaching and raises for elected officials were set to take effect even though the economy hadn’t turned, the commissioners began discussing the possibility of not taking the raises and asked Redle for an opinion on the matter.

Redle said the statute is clear that salaries cannot be increased after being set but also said there were several cases in the past dealing with requests to reduce set salaries. The most well-known case made it to the Wyoming Supreme Court.

The case involved a vacancy in a county office in Fremont County.
The person who was appointed to the open position agreed to accept a salary less than the original salary set for the position but when his term expired, he filed claims for the difference between what he received and the salary set by resolution.

Fremont County said he should receive what he agreed to, but the Wyoming Supreme Court rejected that position and required he be paid the set salary.

Redle noted that the reason the set salary had to be honored was to prevent county commissioners from attempting to influence a public officer by threat of a salary decrease or promise of a salary increase. It keeps county officials independent from county commissions and legislative bodies.

Redle also examined the possibility of an elected official donating his or her salary increase back to the county. While possible in theory, taxes would have to be paid on the money and there would be no tax benefit to donating to the government. Additionally, if an official donated his raise back and then changed his mind later, the county would be required to pay back the sum.

In fact, Redle himself wrote a letter to the commissioners on June 26, 2012, requesting to waive his raise for 2013. He said he did so to demonstrate to his employees that they were not underappreciated and he stood with them in the current economic downturn.

He said also knew there would be questions about him making a decision that could benefit him financially as an elected official.
“Hopefully it’s apparent that the salary increase was not going to compromise my integrity in giving the board and the other elected officials the benefit of my best legal opinion that I could provide,” Redle said.

The commissioners decided to ignore his request to waive his raise, and also decided not to donate their own raises, to keep things equal for all elected officials and avoid the possibility of someone donating then asking for the donation back, Obermueller said.

“I think every elected official was willing to say, ‘I won’t take it,’ but as we understand the county has to pay it,” Maier said. “It’s not going to solve the county’s budget issues or provide raises for anyone else.”

Obermueller said the amount of raises for elected officials this year totals approximately $14,000.

“In retrospect, I’m not sure it was the best call, but we’re going to have to make that call next spring and will try to think hard about where we are,” Maier said.

About

Hannah Wiest is the government and outdoors reporter for The Sheridan Press. She has lived in Colorado and Montana but loves her sunny home state of Wyoming best. She joined The Press staff in February 2013.

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