After protracted negotiations in recent months, the Grand County Council voted at their Dec. 19 meeting to postpone a vote on the county budget.
The tentative budget still needs to be finalized. The council voted by a 3-2 majority, with council members Patrick Trim, Jaylyn Hawks and Curtis Wells voting in favor of moving forward on a plan to raise the lowest-paid county employees up to $14 per hour. The vote came after a salary survey showed that many employees were being paid below market value. The council agreed that they would consider implementing the results of the salary survey at a future date, possibly starting in February.
The implementation of the salary survey was stymied by discussion over whether or not funds were available to increase staff salaries.
“You have to establish a need to pay, a willingness to pay and an ability to pay,” Hawks said. “I think we absolutely have both of those first areas covered. The council, make no mistake, is willing to pay an ethical wage and we do need to, so those two are fully covered. The ability to pay is something that we’re trying to sort out at this moment in time and so I would ask for your patience with that, keeping in mind that we’ve been given information late just like everybody else has.”
The county budget has traditionally been projected to be in a deficit, but every year the county ends up putting money into savings. This is likely due to conservatively estimated revenue streams and over-estimated expenses, said Grand County Clerk and Auditor Diana Carroll. The county has not taken money out of savings in the past 11 years, Carroll said.
The balance in the general fund, the county’s savings, remains at approximately $3.5 million. The state allows a maximum fund balance of $5 million.
Wells remained concerned about whether the county could afford the expense of increasing salaries.
“There’s a threshold you hit where you increase operational expenses to that point, even with the continuing trend of transient room tax in the best case scenario, it’s not a sustainable direction without a tax increase or finding a way to dial in expenses,” Wells said, while advocating that the county should wait to act on the salary survey until more information is available. Wells said Grand County employee salaries should be compared to other counties of similar size — in addition to being calculated based on market value.
“The cost of doing business anywhere is going to go up and up. Gas costs more, the cost of living costs more. It’s inflation and we haven’t been keeping up with it. We’ve been budgeting at a very similar sort of level without any kind of adjustments for inflation or anything like that,” Clapper said.
Council Administrator Ruth Dillon said that bringing wages up to $14 per hour would only help a limited number of employees, approximately 50 in total, with eight of those being full-time and the rest being part-time.
“I want you all to be thinking about unintended consequences,” Dillon said. “Without a [cost of living adjustment], without adjustments to those that are below the minimum according to the survey ... you’ll benefit eight full-time employees. Most all of them are actually search and rescue or EMTs, that maybe this is their third job … while [there are] around 100 that are trying to get to the minimum here. So I just want us to think about employee morale, which we already know is down and how your choices ... today, whatever they are, will have an impact on morale and when you impact morale, you’re impacting our quality of service to our citizens. You’re actually impacting our citizens.”
The compensation study was given to the council late in the budget process, prompting frustration among council members.
“I’ve already expressed my frustration about how late that was given to us. I am not placing blame here. I know the information came late to the county but leaves us, again, scrambling, trying to make sense of some pretty complex documents,” Hawks said at a Dec. 18 special workshop on the budget.
There have also been difficulties communicating with staff, council members said.
“It all comes down to information that is not forthcoming or not forthcoming in an efficient, effective way,” Hawks said. “This is my third budget cycle I’ve been through and I don’t believe to my memory there has been a time when I’ve had the information in advance so I could look at it … I would like to see it before I walk into the meeting.”
The council will consider the budget at a Dec. 27 special meeting at 6 p.m.