Faced with a looming $1.4 million shortfall in the 2013 budget, two Vilas County committees Tuesday approved and forwarded to the full county board a plan they hope will convince some county employees to accept buyouts and leave the county’s workforce.
To close such a large deficit in the county’s budget, many options are being examined by county officials. Members of the county’s finance and budget and personnel committees Tuesday agreed to forward a plan for discussion and approval by the full county board that would pay employees who volunteer to leave county employment a lump sum of 10 percent of their annual salary for each year of completed service.
The maximum any employee could receive would be capped at $55,000 if the plan is approved as proposed by the two committees. The payment cannot exceed the employee’s regular, straight time, annual salary.
The proposal would offer the volunteering employees no health insurance coverage except if the employee wants to take advantage of the COBRA insurance program.
If the proposal is approved by the county board, employees would have 45 days after that to decide whether they wanted to take advantage of the county’s offer.
The only supervisor to vote against the proposal, from either committee, was Mark Rogacki.
Rogacki said the county offers excellent jobs and didn’t feel “the county needs to sweeten them leaving.”
But the remaining committee members disagreed with Rogacki, though they did question at first the proposed payment percentage of 10 percent. At an earlier meeting, the percentages discussed were either 2 or 3 percent.
County Human Resources Director Janna Kahl said after discussing the proposal and offering only 2 or 3 percent, she, Clerk Dave Alleman and Finance Manager Jason Hilger believed 2 to 3 percent to be too low. Because of that, they felt it would have attracted very few employees to considering leaving the workforce.
Kahl also said county employees are aware of the 2013 budget issues and that consolidations of positions or even layoffs are possible.
“With a plan such as this, it will also sit a lot better with the remaining employees,” Kahl said. “This policy will allow some employees who are looking to leave an easier and expedited transition plan to their next career or retirement.”
“This is a much better, more acceptable way instead of firing people,” Supervisor Jim Behling said.
“Morale is an issue and it affects performance,” Supervisor Sig Hjemvick said. “We recognize our financial resources won’t be where we want them to be for next year.”
Rogacki again objected to the plan.
“If we were not a government I would be in favor of this,” Rogacki said. “But we need to take care of the people in this county like those who don’t have jobs. I have a neighbor who hasn’t been able to find a job in four years. We’re going to pay people to quit? They have solid jobs, benefits and vacation.”
Supervisor Ed Bluthardt said, “we’re trying to help these people by not increasing their taxes.”
Too few employees?
Some supervisors questioned if the county might be left with too few employees to provide county services.
Kahl, Hilger and Alleman said the county could back-fill with limited term employees who could be paid much less and the county could save from not having to pay benefits. They could also hire independent contractors or hire new employees starting with no years of service and at reduced wages.
“We can also use this time to take a closer look at our staffing needs,” Kahl said. “We might be able to combine some positions or reduce them to part-time.”
Rogacki said the county needs to take a look at having contracted services instead of having some paid county employees.
“Why aren’t we outsourcing our IT (information technology)? Our legal work? Maintenance?” Rogacki asked.
“I believe there are some committees that are looking at doing just that,” personnel committee chairman and District 19 Supervisor Linda Thorpe said.
Committee members agreed, however, that there is no way to predict how much the county may find in savings with the buyout plan until they know how many employees want to take advantage and how large of a payout those employees would receive.
Bluthardt also expressed concerns about what the county would do if several department heads decided to take the county’s buyout offer.
“I don’t think we are taking into account that some of these employees will have to be replaced because they have important positions,” Bluthardt said.
“We have good jobs,” Supervisor Lorin Johnson said. “We won’t have a mass exodus.”
Part of the proposal also included language that stated acceptance of the buyout means the employee “will not be automatically disqualified when applying for unemployment compensation.”
Several committee members objected to any mention of the possibility of unemployment compensation even if an employee accepts the voluntary buyout.
“We shouldn’t be encouraging some to file for unemployment which we would have to pay for after they are getting a lump sum from the county,” Bluthardt said. “It’s stupid in my opinion.”
“It’s an insult to taxpayers to give unemployment to people who voluntarily take a buyout,” Rogacki said.
But Kahl and Corporation Counsel Martha Milanowski said the decision on whether the former county employee could receive unemployment compensation would be up to state officials.
“The decision would be in the hands of the state,” Milanowski said. “They have guidelines and if the people don’t meet those guidelines they won’t get it.”
Some supervisors said they highly doubted former employees would be able to receive unemployment compensation if they accepted the buyout.
Milanowski suggested that could be avoided if instead of making the payment a one lump sum, to rather make it every two weeks over a set length of time.
Eventually the committees approved amending the proposal by removing any mention of unemployment benefits.
After about 90 minutes of discussion the two committees voted and agreed to forward the proposal to the county board for placement on the September meeting agenda.
After asking if a two-thirds vote of board supervisors was needed for passage of the plan, Bluthardt was told only a simple majority of board members was needed for passage.
“Well, that might help,” Bluthardt said. “But I’m not very confident the board will approve this.”
Joe VanDeLaarschot may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.