By a vote of three in favor and 15 against, Vilas County supervisors Tuesday rejected a resolution that proposed offering payments to some county employees so they could leave county employment and help reduce the 2013 budget.
Arguments against the proposal appeared to be so convincing that three supervisors – James Behling, Ed Bluthardt and Lorin Johnson, who had voted in favor of the proposal when discussed earlier by the county’s personnel committee – voted in the majority Tuesday to vote down the proposal.
Board Chairman Steve Favorite and supervisors Leon Kukanich and Maynard Bedish recused themselves from any debate or a vote on the proposal because they have relatives who work for the county.
The idea had been proposed as a way to reduce expenses in the 2013 budget because the county is already facing a $1.5 million deficit for that year.
The proposal called for employees who volunteer to leave county employment to receive a lump sum of 10 percent of their annual salary for each year of completed county service.
The maximum any employee could receive would have been capped at $55,000. The payment could not exceed the employee’s regular, straight time, annual salary. The employees would also have had a 45-day window to accept or reject the buyout. But discussion at Tuesday’s meeting immediately began with harsh criticism of the proposal.
“I’ve gotten a number of calls from residents of my district about this,” District 1 Supervisor Ralph Sitzbeger said. “They are all asking: ‘Why are we doing this? What is it with this county board that they can’t stand on their own two feet?’ They said that if we need to reduce the number of county employees we should just fire them and not pay them to leave. It makes me sick, the idea of rewarding people to retire.”
“This is just terrible public policy,” District 11 Supervisor Mark Rogacki said. He had also voted against the idea in committee. “I urge everyone to vote against this to show taxpayers and show our employees we have good jobs in Vilas County.”
Hjemvick removes support
Supervisor Sig Hjemvick acknowledged to his fellow supervisors that he had originally supported the idea in committee, but after receiving phone calls from some of his constituents he said he had to reverse his position.
“I initially signed my name to this resolution, but a number of phone calls brought me to my senses and I now can’t support this,” Hjemvick said.
Supervisor Dennis Nielson expressed disappointment that other county officials had provided little information to him prior to Tuesday’s meeting about the proposal.
“I have to subscribe to The Lakeland Times to know what’s going on,” Nielsen said.
Fate of vacant positions
Supervisor Erv Teichmiller expressed his concern that if a large number of employees took advantage of the plan, and some were important department heads, that services provided by the county could be adversely effected.
“I’m concerned that if we have this voluntary retirement that some of these important positions won’t be refilled or they won’t be refilled with the right people,” Teichmiller said.
“We’re not sure what the results will be. This is all an experiment,” supervisor and Finance Committee Chairman Chris Mayer said.
County Human Resources Director Janna Kahl said during the earlier committee meetings the county could back-fill the vacant jobs 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.”
Kahl also said the county is undertaking a performance management review of county employees which could also help supervisors decide which positions could be eliminated or see a reduction in hours.
Behling, who supported the idea in committee, said the proposal is “less a way to manage our workforce, but a way to manage the county board.”
Position cuts difficult to make
“We have tried in the past to eliminate costs, but we have not been able to move forward because of the lack of support by the county board,” Behling said. “I never hear a real honest effort to reduce our spending. The hard way needs to be done. It’s an honest way to reduce [spending]. At least it’s an effort. I’m in favor of this not because I want to be, but because I have to be.”
“I don’t see the department heads making these tough cuts,” Finance Manager Jason Hilger said.
Teichmiller said the resolution also did not take into account the dollars that some county employees would also receive for unused sick and vacation time.
Shirley Kufeldt of Conover told supervisors they had failed to look at other alternatives before proposing the employee buyout.
“I’ve heard no discussion of going from 40 hours to 35 or from a five-day work week to four days,” Kufeldt said “I could understand doing this if we were a corporation, but this is taxpayers’ money.”
During the earlier committee meeting Rogacki said the county needed to take a look at having contracted services instead of having some paid county employees.
After more discussion, the vote was taken and the proposal rejected. Some supervisors agreed after the vote that tough decisions on possible layoffs or eliminating of positions will have to be made during the budget process.
The board also took action on other agenda items.
• They rejected a resolution from the county’s Tribal Concerns Committee that called for the county in 2013 to fund a dangerous drug investigator position within the sheriff’s department. State grant money to fund the position ends Dec. 31 and to keep the position the county would have to fund the annual salary of more than $40,000.
Members of the Law Enforcement Committee also expressed concern that the sheriff’s department and the Tribal Concerns Committee had appeared to try to circumvent their committee’s decision to table the matter until budget time.
• Supervisors expressed support of the continued efforts to possibly formulate a drug court to handle drug offenses regarding repeat offenders. The Lac du Flambeau Tribe and the county are working on the possible creation of the court to help offenders to stop taking drugs and committing related crimes.
• Supervisors also authorized a voluntary initiative for the county board to go paperless as a 12-month experiment. It will be included in the county’s 2013 budget costs, but will exceed $29,780. The county would purchase related equipment software for supervisors to voluntarily receive county communications and other information via an iPad or other similar electronic device. When the year is over the county will reassess the experiment’s results.
Joe VanDeLaarschot may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.