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Compensation study shows county workers underpaid

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By Emile Hallez

Jefferson County has paid a quarter of a million dollars to discover what many county employees already suspected: They’re underpaid.

The study, which ended up costing a total of $245,000, was presented less than a week before the Board of Commissioners will meet to revise the county’s proposed 2010 budget.

Implementing pay adjustments for employees who earn less than market wages could cost between $107,000 and $1.4 million per year, depending on which groups would be selected for raises and how close to market rates they would be paid.

“It’s kind of a lot to embrace at this time,” Commissioner Kevin McCasky said following a presentation of the findings. “I think there’s some fine-tuning that we’re going to apply.”

The county would have to spend more than $1.1 million per year to bring its entire underpaid staff up to earning levels comparable to similar government and private-sector jobs. That amount is based on raising pay for 882 employees to 100 percent of market rates.

“Though the total price tag can sort of take your breath away, the number of people significantly affected … is not as bad as some might think,” Commissioner Kathy Hartman said.

Though the numbers could be used in final work on the county’s 2010 budget, it’s unclear what action, if any, the commissioners will take to adjust pay rates. The proposed 2010 budget projects a 1.7 percent increase in tax revenues over 2009, but demand for social services is soaring amid the economic downturn, leaving little additional money for other areas, County Administrator Jim Moore said.

“Our needs in human services have increased … as much as 30 to 40 percent (in the past few years),” he said.

Despite the study’s findings that many employees are underpaid, Moore said the numbers could be much worse.

“I think it shows that, overall, we’re doing a pretty good job compensating people,” he said. Moore said he favors giving employees adequate pay but did not specify whether raises could be factored into the 2010 budget.

One possibility is that 132 county employees making less than 95 percent of market rates could receive compensation to boost their earnings up to that level. But no guarantees have been made.

“My goal is to get people to the appropriate salary,” Hartman said. “One-hundred thirty-two employees would get raises. But we have not made that decision, and there is no money allocated for that yet.”

On the subject of bonus pay, which the county has been criticized for allowing to rise dramatically in recent years, Hartman said she will not budge.

“I will be saying I don’t believe anyone should get a bonus,” she said about the possibility of the issue being raised during the Nov. 23 budget meeting. Moore said he does not necessarily object to bonuses, provided they are one-time payments given in lieu of annual raises.

The county scheduled the compensation study to be completed last month, but various complications prevented it from meeting the original deadline. Jeffco initially signed a contract with Lee & Burgess Associates of Colorado for the study, but the firm could not finish the project on deadline and was not compensated by the county. A second firm, Fox Lawson and Associates, was given the new contract, which was also terminated. That company received $65,000 in county funds.

The final study was completed by the Waters Consulting Group Inc. for the sum of $180,000. The study’s total cost to the county was about $245,000.