January 19, 2007

Some county employees
may not get pay raises

County Council has been asked to freeze the salaries of 55 executive branch employees directly appointed by County Executive Christopher Coons as part of the effort to hold the line on county government spending to ward off a budget crisis.

A press statement issued by Coons's office on Jan. 19 said the move would save approximately $250,000 a year. The freeze is to last through the expiration of the current pay plan in April, 2008.

The statement said that the affected employees were due to receive 3.1% cost-of-living increases this year. They also gat automatic 5% annual merit raises on the anniversary of their hiring if they receive satisfactory performance reviews.

"Freezing the salaries of appointed employees further cuts our costs without cutting programs or direct services for residents," Coons said in the statement.

Affected are so-called political appointees in a wide range of positions from general managers through administrative support people. Not affected are about 175 other non-union employees hired through the countyís civil service merit system.

Coons's salary, as well as those of other elected officials, are governed by state law. Spokeswoman Christy Gleason said it is his intention to return the amount of any raise he receives to the county treasury.

Because the employees' pay plan was adopted by ordinance, the proposed freeze can be imposed only by an ordinance approved by a majority of the 13-member Council, Gleason said.

She added that it will be handled as a regular legislation under the sponsorship of Council president Paul Clark and not as an emergency measure.  That means it will likely be introduced at Council's next session on Jan. 23 and voted upon three weeks later. The gap between meetings is an extra week because there are five Tuesdays in January.

Gleason said Council also will be asked to impose the freeze on its appointed employees.

County pay scales provide for up to 10 annual increases. Not everyone starts on the bottom rung of the level at which his or her job is classified, however. Someone hired at the fourth step, for instance, would automatically receive raises upon completing each of the first six years of service. Coons has been in office since January, 2005.

About 85% of the 1,556 full-time county employees are covered by negotiated union contracts and their pay and benefits are locked in for the duration of the contracts. The contract with one union, representing just under 300 Department of Community Services workers, expires this spring; the rest run out in April, 2008.

Gleason said that Coons has had conversations with the unions' leaders about the county's financial situation but, at this point, there has been no request for them to agree to negotiate changes in the contracts.

"This is not a step taken lightly. However, we must make sacrifices as we work to change the financial path of our county," Coons said in the statement.

"I look forward to working together with Council as we make tough choices about spending and revenues that protect our financial future while putting the needs of residents first."

Workers' pay and benefits and how they compare with comparable positions in other governments and the private sector currently are subjects of a consultant study. The study was commissioned by the Financial Future Taskforce looking into possible short-term and structural changes in county revenue and spending. Personnel costs account for about 75% of the county budget.  Results of the study are scheduled to be made public soon.

Coons already has imposed several costs-cutting measures involving personnel. Vacant positions other than those directly connected to public safety are not being filled; except for good cause, managers are required to wait until severance packages are paid before hiring replacements for anyone who resigns or retires; and nonessential overtime has been eliminated.

"The job freeze was a first step; this is the second step," Gleason said. "It will not be the last step we will take."

Managers also were directed last November to cut their present budgets, exclusive of personnel costs, by 10%, which is roughly equivalent to an across-the-board 3% reduction in the county budget. They also were told to request no more than 98% of their current budgets for the coming fiscal year.

Coons will submit his proposed fiscal 2008 budget to Council in March. Council is required to adopt the budget before June 1.

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Read previous Delaforum article: Council lifts ceiling on tax-increase requests

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