County Hiring, Pay Decisions Deferred Until Budget Talks Commence

(Photo by John Deacon|American Courthouse Photo Archive)

At an Executive Committee meeting Wednesday morning, St. Joseph County Commissioners decided to defer conversations about hiring and pay decisions until planning talks begin over the 2021 Fiscal Year budget. Commissioners discussed three possible exceptions to a current hiring freeze as well as changes to the way in which elected county officials’ salaries are determined. Ongoing budget shortfalls due to several factors influenced the decision not to schedule votes on the questions at next week’s regular County Commission meeting.

The hiring freeze exceptions were requested from two different departments. 3B District Court Administrator and Magistrate Tabitha Wedge said the position of District Deputy Clerk will need to be filled soon. Several retirements, resignations, and deaths have affected the court’s staff capacity over the last several years. A recent clerk’s resignation with one week’s notice compounded the shortage. That person had been partly filling in for another employee who has been out on medical leave. Various clerical tasks are divided among other staff who can take them on.

For the other two hiring freeze exceptions, Chief Deputy Treasurer Kathy Humphreys said that with Treasurer Judie Ratering’s impending retirement at the end of this year, a shift in staff will create openings further down the chain of command. Humphreys will step into Ratering’s position, and Deputy Treasurer Kari Sechler will then fill Humphreys’ current position. Humphreys asked for an exception to fill Sechler’s positon and ensure capacity for the treasury’s checks and balances remains in place.

Commissioner Daniel Czajkowski said he objected to voting on the exceptions during the current year’s budget in the face of anticipated shortfalls because he doesn’t want to “hire someone new just to lay them off. We have a hiring freeze in place for a reason.” Instead, he said he preferred to plan for the positions during budget talks for next year “when you know if you can afford it.” Commissioner Kathy Pangle said she agreed with Czajkowski, as did Commissioner Allen Balog.

Czajkowski thanked Wedge and Humphreys for “coming forward now,” but said they and other department heads should work with County Administrator Teresa Doehring to establish a list of needs regarding which positions they want filled so they can be included during budget discussions. 

During discussion on the District Court position, Commissioner Ken Malone asked whether a recently approved half-million-dollar grant from the state for pandemic-related expenses could help offset the cost of hiring the positions. Finance Director Angie Steinman said the state is still clarifying what the grant can be used to cover, and it would be a one-time benefit that would not sustainably pay for hiring the positions over time and would only apply to the current-year budget.

In follow-up comments to Watershed Voice, Steinman said the county has balanced its budget for the past few years by dipping into the Delinquent Tax Fund. Capital expenditures, early retirement buyouts, and infrastructure upgrades accounted for the shortfalls which made doing so necessary, she said, and in the long run, they will create cost savings. However, those kinds of budget shortfalls, as well as uncertainties unique to the current year, have made commissioners hesitant to spend money.

Commissioners also deferred a decision on changing how the pay scale for elected officials like the Clerk and Register of Deeds, Sheriff, and Drain Commissioner is determined. Currently, these positions receive stepped increments in the same manner as regular employees. However, after researching best practices in other counties, Doehring brought forth a proposal late last month to pay them at the statewide mean average for each equivalent position, plus a percentage above that average. 

On Wednesday, Doehring said she would recommend that average be 10 percent for most elected officials, but a little bit higher for the Sheriff and Clerk because their responsibilities are greater than in other locales. She also recommended the Drain Commissioner remain at the stepped scale until a successor is elected due to the fact that the proposed change would cause a significant drop in pay for that position. Commissioners at Wednesday’s meeting expressed support for the changes and agreed to incorporate them into budget discussions.

To begin those conversations, commissioners set the date and time for the first 2021 Budget Workshop for Wednesday, October 28, 2020, following the next Executive Committee meeting. The Executive Committee meeting will start as usual at 8 a.m. and will transition to a budget discussion that is planned to last from 9 a.m. to noon. In the meantime, Doehring asked for patience from the county’s department heads. “We will do everything we can to ensure you are successful,” she said.

In other County Executive Committee business:

  • Drain Commissioner Jeff Wenzel said he recently dismantled 1971-era machinery at the dam that holds back Lake Templene and Sand Lake, and had it refurbished and upgraded at a cost of $48,916. The work keeps the dam in compliance with state requirements for maintaining the water levels in the lakes. The commission previously approved the work, but commissioners agreed to add an assessment roll to the voting agenda for next week’s regular meeting.
  • Commissioners also added an apportionment item to next week’s agenda, wherein they will approve the measure that permits townships around the county to levy their millages. Equalization Director Joshua Simmons said there are “quite a few millage reductions this year” at the township level, which he said is unsurprising due to the current state of the housing market. There is no county-level reduction, he said.
  • St. Joseph County Commission on Aging (COA) Executive Director Tim Stoll is leaving for another position, and commissioners wished him well. At Wednesday’s meeting, Stoll briefed them on COA’s annual report. The past year saw increased program offerings at COA’s Sturgis facility, increased attendance in both Sturgis and Three Rivers, growth in membership, and completion of atrium and walking trails work at the new Three Rivers, among other highlights.
  • Commissioners agreed to add the purchase of a new server for the COA to next week’s agenda to replace one that Stoll said has reached the end of its useful life.
  • Also added to the agenda will be appointment of a three to four person Remonumentation Peer Review Group, which is responsible for maintaining the integrity of established corner points used in land surveying.
  • Commissioners continue to discuss when and how to meet in person. For the foreseeable future, regular meetings will take place at the courthouse with a virtual attendance option. Executive Committee meetings will take place virtually with the exception of the meeting and budget workshop on October 28.

Dave Vago is a writer and columnist for Watershed Voice. A Philadelphia native with roots in Three Rivers, Vago is a planning consultant to history and community development organizations and is the former Executive Director of the Three Rivers DDA/Main Street program.