Friday, September 26, 2008

County Employee Morale During This Terrible Economy and Budget

UPDATE on benefits:

After hearing substantial feedback from employees, today we unanimously reduced the proposed spousal surcharge to employees by 50%, and we reduced the proposed additional dental employee contribution by 36%.


Yesterday, I received this very honest and thoughtful post from a county employee. I really appreciate and respect this input, and imagine many others feel the same way, so I wanted to spend some time responding to it:

"Mr. Pepper this is on another topic but I hope you can help. Someone told me about your blog. I work for the county. We are struggling with no raises and our health care costs going up more than double last year. Some of the people I work with make so little they need public assistance to help them get by. Now I hear health care costs are going up again. People who work for the county do so because of the benefits. They could make more money with private employers who pay a lot more. Well now there are no good benefits. We are paying more than some private employees when it comes to health insurance. People will not work at the county if this happens. The people who are good enough to go to private employers will and we will be stuck with those who are left. Then the county will be in trouble when it comes to helping people. I don't want this to happen. Can you help us? Can we get raises? Can we cut health care costs? Can you do something for us?"

First, thank you for posting this. I greatly want to hear the thoughts of those who work for the County, and have always hoped this blog would be a way to do so. Another County worker publicly shared similar concerns at our last Commission meeting, and I greatly respected him for doing so. What scares me most is when I hear NOTHING. I want to know what people are thinking, and how they are feeling about things. Over the past 18 months, I've actually been surprised by how little feedback I get from our employees. I hope to get far more input in the future, in whatever way employees are comfortable doing so.

Second, let me say that one of the first things I emphasized to our Administrator when I arrived at the County was my worry about County employee morale. I heard it and felt it all through my campaign, from employee after employee who I met at their home, at festivals, or in parades. It worried me greatly then, and it worries me as much now. As you suggest, the consequences of that morale staying low are dramatically bad for our County--lower productivity, good people leaving, etc.

Third, part of that low morale came, I believe, because the commissioners themselves treated employees poorly. Calling them names such as "bureaucrats" when it became politically convenient to point the finger at someone. Running down the work of whole departments in the media, instead of constructively trying to improve things, etc. This kind of public disrespect shown toward the County workforce was incredibly unhealthy. In my time on the commission, I have worked hard to try to change that environment, so all County employees understand that the commissioners themselves respect the hard and difficult work you do every day (three weeks ago, I publicly corrected an attorney who derided employees as "bureaucrats" when he was trying to make a point). I would appreciate any thoughts on other ways we can improve the environment further.

Fourth, of course I also understand that a key part of that morale involves the wages and benefits our employees receive, particularly at this difficult time with prices going up and overall economic turmoil. Despite a difficult budget year in 2007, when sales tax revenues were slightly better than projected, I was pleased that we were able to provide a raise, and make it retroactive to the beginning of year.

This year, revenues have been so in the tank that we have not been able to do so, something I'm not happy about at all. I wish it were not the case, but we're really stuck, like so many other governments and businesses are, by this horrendous economy. Because I don't think any of us should get a raise if our employees do not, I, Todd Portune and a few other elected officials gave back our state-required raises so we're at least all in the same boat. (I know that's not much consolation.)

Looking forward, our 2009 budget year is not going to be easy--indeed, it will be worse. We face a hole of $20M or more, largely because sales tax, property transfer tax, property tax, and local government fund revenue are all slumping, along with interest revenue, due to this "perfect storm" of economic bad news. It doesn't make it any easier, but other counties nationwide and the state are facing the same problem, and grappling with the same tough decisions we face.

As you note, we are in the process of looking at every cost saving we can to get through this. I have previously asked for employee input as to where to find savings, and have received a few suggestions, but not enough. I'd greatly appreciate more (through this blog, perhaps), because I don't doubt that those who know the most about where we can save money are the men and women who work for this County every day. (If you suggest something anonymously, I have no way to know who submitted it, by the way). We have also challenged all departments to think through and implement any reforms or efficiencies they can--because every dollar saved through greater efficiency and reformed operations is one that we don't have to find through more drastic cuts.

Unfortunately, in trying to make it through this tough budget, almost everything is on the table. A number of changes to health benefits have indeed been suggested, have been discussed at several of our recent meetings, and are under consideration for next week. While it's clear we will adopt some of these options as part of our 2009 budget, we also will reject the most dramatic options available because of our concern over the negative impact they would have on our employees at this difficult time. Of those we do choose, we have tried to minimize the impact as much as possible. Overall, it is a tough, unsatisfying balancing act, but one we must do. Doing nothing will only make other cuts we make more painful.

This is not a fun process for anyone. My hope is that we continue to trim our budget to get through a tough 2009, and we make sure we are doing all we can to spur economic growth near-term and medium-term (this County has long underfunded basic economic development, so we haven't been in the growth business as strongly as we need to be). If we accomplish savings through tough decisions at this difficult time, while getting any type of economic uptick in mid-2009 or later because of national trends and our own economic development efforts, it will then allow us to afford, over the long-term, a combination of wages and benefits that guarantees good lives and good morale for the public servants who work so hard to deliver critical services each and every day.


Anonymous said...

Commissioner, please know this employee speaks for most county employees. We all got in this to help people, but not to end up in poverty. When a good percentage of your workforce is eligible for health care through medicaid, something is wrong. Not only will you lose employees, you have virtually no way of attracting good ones. We don't want to be rich, we just want to be able to afford to take care of our families. I expect no raise this year, but if you increase our health care again after tripling it last year, I don't know how I will be able to take care of my family.

Pay Up said...

Talk is cheap. What are you actually DOING for them?

Anonymous said...

I am glad to see this commissioner. The truth is, many of m fellow employees believe commissioners could care less abou them. They helped vote Phil Heimlich out and they are talking about rallying their fellow employees, family an friends to vote against you and Commissioner Portune. I am going to talk to them and let them know about your post. It seems sincere and level-headed.

It is not that we don't realize the tight budget situation. It is just that this administration and the last one always put employees last. If there was anything else left after everyone else got their share, employees would get a 1 or 2 percent raise. Well years of raises not keeping up with inflation and increasing our health care costs at incredible rates has left a lot of employees in trouble. And these are the people you are conting on to serve the public. You have employees in the welfare department helping people when their salaries are so small they could be on welfare themselves.

I hope you mean what you said. You seem like a decent man.

Anonymous said...

Early this year you voted to get Mr. Thompson a $10,000 bonus.....There was nothing for the empolyees who did all the work for him to get this.....his contract will allow you to do this again in 2009.....he requires all of us to do our best to completed the goals which allows HIM to get a bonus in 2009....Your 2009 Budget goals does not include any goal to give the employees anything for 2009.....we understand who is most important not by words but by actions...remember there are over 6,000 of us plus our families and friends and WE VOTE too

David Pepper said...

To set the record straight, no bonus was provided to the Administrator this year. His salary was frozen like everyone else's.

As for votes and politics, when you face the economic crisis we all face, and the tough decisions amid only bad options to get through it, "politics" aren't really a factor in our decisions. Basically, nothing we do will be popular. All we can do is balance all the interests, and hope that people understand we are trying to make the best judgments possible in a bad situation.

Again, any recommendations on cuts and savings would be helpful.

Anonymous said...

1.Some counties have gone to longer work days and a shorter work week with unintended benefits as a result in terms of production and savings (gas, electricity, traffic).
2. It would seem that with technology, some work could be completed from the home by certain employees.
3. Revenue - we need to think of non-traditional ways to bring revenue back into this county. If we can raise millions of dollars to elect public officials, we should be creative enough to utilize the resources we do have to increase them. Your community will roll up their sleeves to help in terms of work and financial support if asked.

workers said...

I understand as an employee that tough decisions need to be made, but lets stick to making them across the board in all areas. What sense does it make to allow departments (clerk) to have employees paid for election day off to work at the polls? Paid once as am employee, twice by the Board of Elections, Third with a half day off after Election Day. I thought we are trying to save money.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Pepper:

I am a longtime county employee and I believe you are truly doing all you can for the employees, understanding your job is to serve the citizens and not the employees. You do things without grandstanding like one of your compatriots, and neither your nor his m.o. goes unnoticed. Again thanks for keeping the employees in mind while grappling with the bigger issue of keeping the county afloat in these difficult times.

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