/ Articles / Oneida County gets a glimpse of its budget future
Going into this year’s budget process, Oneida County faced a huge deficit of almost a million dollars, but supervisors had a plan to deal with that — some creative budgeting, some would say risky budgeting, that uses potentially non-recurring revenues to balance the budget.
That wasn’t the only challenge, either. The initial deficit of $903,000 presented to the administration committee would have been even larger had it included an increase in next year’s health insurance costs of almost $287,000, assuming the county chose to make no changes to the plan, which was hit with premium increases of 8%.
With such looming deficit numbers, some supervisors, most notably supervisor Billy Fried, looked to cut the spending side of things rather than remain focused just on increasing revenues. For example, the UW Extension budget, which was included in the budget presented to the administration committee, gobbles up about $200,000 a year, even though the non-mandated program is ranked among the least needed programs in study after study.
Eliminating that budget, along with some continuing appropriations, or tin cans, could have at least offset most of the health insurance increase, allowing the county to maintain its current level of benefits.
The idea of cutting those went nowhere, though Fried tried. But the county’s labor relations committee (LRES) came up with its own way to at least offset the looming health insurance costs to the county: Make employees pay for virtually all of it.
And that’s just what the LRES committee proposed to the administration committee, a change in the health plan that would have raised deductibles and maximum out-of-pocket expenses for some employees, as well as increased premiums for other employees.
The actual employee impact depended upon the plan — the county has six — but, according to some estimates, many employees stood to lose as much as $5,000 and maybe more in the form of higher health insurance costs, while, as human resources director Lisa Charbarneau told the administration committee, “it’s a net cost of zero to the budget.”
In the end, the committee instead found a way to make it a net cost of zero to employees — no changes for next year in the final budget headed to the county board for approval on Nov. 12 — but not before a vocal voice of discontent from employees thundered down on the committee during the public comment period.
To be fair, the initial LRES proposal was never going to make it through the administration committee intact. Already Charbarneau and her staff had suggested that the county had been way over-budgeting medical expense reimbursement plan (MERP) payments in the past and returning the excess to the general fund. Budgeting less to more accurately reflect the county’s payments — the MERP budget was reduced by $60,000 for 2020 — could be used to reduce the increased costs to employees, they said.
And some supervisors proposed using a workers’ compensation dividend check of $76,000 that the county is receiving for its outstanding safety record to further reduce those costs.
In the end, those dollars, along with the creative use of the county’s revenue streams and general fund, made the rest of it possible.
Employees demand respect
It’s hard to say whether the administration committee would have completely erased increased employee costs in next year’s health insurance plan if a roomful of employees hadn’t been there to make their feelings known, but their demands for respect — many of them from the sheriff’s department and including one major countywide elected official — were compelling and forceful.
They might have also offered the first glimpse at what may be a recurring budget battle pitting employees serving core government functions against nonessential and low priority programs that nonetheless are popular among political special interests.
The elected official, county clerk Tracy Hartman, got the ball rolling, pointing out that employee costs as a percentage of the county’s total budget are relatively low, which made proposed cuts in compensation even harder for her to understand.
“On the first day that we started looking at the budget process and (finance director Darcy Smith) was giving her overview, a comment that was made was, ‘so what percentage of the expenses to the county are the employees?’ and the percent that was given was 40%,” Hartman said. “I don’t remember who said it, but someone said, ‘Wow, that seems really low,’ and somebody else’s comment was that, compared to the private sector, that is very low. So to say it’s low and then to go through what these proposals are to the employees — which is to increase, increase, increase — is hard for me to listen to.”
Hartman said the hit to the average employee would run into the thousands of dollars.
“The employees, under the health insurance plan, under the traditional plan, the average employee will see an increase of $5,000 to $7,000 a year, if I understand everything correctly, between premiums and losing their MERP, so it’s an increase to them,” she said.
The long-awaited increases due to the Carlson Dettmann wage study paled in comparison, Hartman said.
“Under the Carlson Dettmann, they are going to see an average increase of $200,” she said. “For your department heads that might be making more money, that won’t be as hard to take. It will be hard to take but not as hard to take, but if you have an employee who is making $40,000 a year and they get a $200 increase, and they get a $5,000 increase in the health insurance expense, that’s a lot of money for them. It’s a lot for them to budget for. It’s a lot for them to plan for.”
Hartman observed that the county has a $49 million budget and was proposing no increase or just a little increase in its own health insurance costs, while asking employees making $40,000 to $50,000 a year to increase their costs by $5,000.
“I urge you to look at that,” she said. “We started this process with a $900,000 budget deficit and we have found all of that plus more by asking our departments, by cutting things, by increasing revenue, and I think it is possible to come up with (another option) or option zero, which would be the county paying the entire increase. I think that’s possible to do.”
Forcing employees to fund nonessential programs
Jill Butzlaff, the sheriff department’s office administrator and a 27-year veteran of the department, was one of many of that agency’s employees filling the budget hearing room, and she both decried what she depicted as using proposed compensation cuts to essential personnel to fund nonessential programs and challenged the administration committee to show that it cared for its core employees.
“As a leader in the sheriff’s office, I am very disappointed in the proposed health plan increases and the lack of emphasis that has been placed on the implementation of Carlson Dettmann to get our valuable employees properly compensated,” Butzlaff said. “This proposal hinders our recruitment opportunities with employees. Benefits are important to prospective employees who have several other employment options in the community.”
And those options most often aren’t as taxing as a position in the sheriff’s department, Butzlaff said.
“Many of these opportunities do not require working on evenings, weekends, and holidays, in a 24/7 environment,” she said. “This proposal hurts your long-term employees like me who have dedicated over half their life to Oneida County with the goal of having affordable health insurance upon retirement.”
Health insurance upon retirement is a major reason many have remained loyal to Oneida County, Butzlaff said.
Butzlaff also said the proposal would hurt employees who have been deemed underpaid by a Carlson Dettmann study that cost taxpayers thousands of dollars.
“Our employees remain underpaid but continue to lose money from their paychecks with increases in health insurance premiums and/or deductibles,” she said. “The high deductible insurance plan assumes that employees, many of whom start out at less than $40,000 a year, have several thousand dollars in a savings account to cover a medical crisis.”
Butzlaff also observed that medical problems can carry over into consecutive years.
“A catastrophic accident for a family at the end of the year, which crosses over into the next year, will cost a $40,000-a-year employee half of their gross salary in deductibles,” she said.
Butzlaff also said it was unfair to make essential public safety personnel pay the freight for low-priority programs, a reality she said county supervisors were ignoring.
“The county has spent many hours and efforts to prepare two efficiency studies,” she said. “Most members of the committee have disregarded the study during the budget process. The employees have made many sacrifices since the implementation of Act 10, many of us not saying anything while positions are added and non-mandated programs continue to be supported during the budget process. The county has been searching for funding for the past year to fund the employee raises, and yet the committee continues to support the lower ranking, nonessential programs at the cost of the current and future employees, which only hurts the citizens of Oneida County.”
Butzlaff said it took the administration committee just three days to overcome a $900,000 deficit, so it should be able to come up with the money to do the fair and right thing for employees.
“As our sheriff stated on opening day, I ask you to sharpen your pencils,” she said. “We continue to work understaffed at the sheriff’s office due to problems in recruiting qualified applicants, all the while expecting our current team members to do more and stay loyal to Oneida County.”
Message in a benefit cut
At one point, Butzlaff said, the dispatch center was 40% understaffed due to vacancies.
“The other 60% of the employees stepped up and worked the extra hours to keep the community safe,” she said. “What message are you sending to employees with increased premiums, minimal raises, and potential caps in PTO? I can tell you what it says to me. It says you don’t care.”
Shortages of employees in the public sector can have critical consequences, Butzlaff said.
“How do you answer the questions of your constituents when it takes too long for the 911 call of their loved one to get answered?” she asked. “Or officers are not able to reply to their calls as quickly as needed, or maybe they are unhappy with the care of an inmate in our facility, or their open records requests are not being fulfilled quickly enough. All of these functions are not only essential, but they are mandated by state laws. We need to focus on recruiting and retaining employees to fill the crucial positions.”
Employees are important people, Butzlaff said, echoing sentiments made by supervisor Bob Mott earlier in the hearings when he defended the UW Extension.
“This is your opportunity to show the employees how important they are by providing affordable health care and competitive salaries,” she said.
Captain Tyler Young of the sheriff’s department agreed with Butzlaff that it appeared the county was subsidizing nonessential programs by cutting the compensation of core workers.
“I remember shortly after being promoted, with the Carlson Dettmann study, I was excited for employees, going back and reporting to them that (county officials) are listening to what it takes in our community to maintain and recruit employees, that they recognize that we are behind,” Young said. “Now, as the year has gone on, now we’re talking about 15 cents, which is far below what the study showed. Now we’re talking about increasing the insurance costs of the employees.”
Taken in context with other nonessential programs the county continues to fund, the county is delivering a message, Young said.
“To me it’s coming across that the employees — because the county is not putting the money toward the cost of the employee —the employees are funding some of these programs, and I don’t think they should be burdened with that,” he said. “I think maintaining good employees at the sacrifice of some services may be necessary to look at.”
Deputy Dan Semmerling focused on the burden the proposal would put on younger employees.
“We have a lot of young families that are starting up, and to take that much money from them is going to be a burden for them,” he said. “I don’t have all the statistics, but I heard through the rumor mill that during our last hiring process we only had five applicants and three were from a prior list who weren’t proper candidates to hire. There are plenty of academies in the state of Wisconsin that are pumping out recruits to hire. Why are they not applying to Oneida County? Because they are going to look at their wage. They are going to look at the benefits, and if these young families can’t afford to come to Oneida County and work because we don’t have good benefits for them, what kind of deputies are you going to get?”
Lives on the line, 24/7
Deputy Nancy Reklau, a single parent with a daughter who just graduated from college, said she probably couldn’t get by with just her current job if the proposal was enacted.
“I have one income,” Reklau said. “If the insurance goes up this amount, I would probably have to get another job just to make ends meet.”
Reklau stressed that all the deputies serve around the clock even though she wasn’t paid to be at the hearing and drove her own vehicle, as others who attended also did.
“We are on duty 24/7,” she said. “I’m not getting paid at this time. If I get a call that there is an active shooter in the school, I’m going to be the first one there. We put our lives on the line every single day. You talk about routine traffic stops. There’s nothing routine with a traffic stop. We’re there to protect your families, we are there to protect everyone. We’re getting younger people and I don’t know how they can make ends meet with this increase. It is difficult enough.”
Keith Fabianski, who works in the corrections department, said the corrections department suffered already and the county should be wary of further weakening its competitive position in recruitment, given impending retirements in the sheriff’s office, both in corrections and among deputies.
“In the corrections department, we’ve had three openings we cannot fill,” Fabianski said. “It’s because we are one of the lowest paid corrections departments in the state. It’s a shame that when I was first hired here more than 20 years ago, you had more than 50 applicants for one position. We’ve been running for three positions. We’ve had six applicants.”
Fabianski wondered how the county would handle the upcoming retirements.
“How are we going to fill those positions?” he asked. “That’s the question I have for this board. If we continue down this path, we will not get any positions filled whatsoever. The corrections department brings in quite a bit of revenue with state inmates that goes into the general fund. That is something that everybody should be thinking about.”
Another audience member said a quick poll of the other 71 counties in Wisconsin revealed that Oneida County ranks high among those with the highest deductibles and premiums, and another employee closed with an emotional appeal, saying she was a single mom whose child had to have surgery.
Unfortunately, she told the committee, she had selected the high deductible policy to help make ends meet.
“What do I do?” she asked. “Do I sell my vehicles? My hands are tied. I enjoy the job, but I don’t enjoy coming to work every day because it’s not worth it. My kids might not have a mom. We’re always working and we never shut it off. We live our job, really, and it’s stupid because we’re not getting compensated for it.”
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming “Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story” and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.