Bonuses have been in the news a lot lately, and the news has not been positive. Most recently, Jeffco’s employee bonus policy has come under scrutiny.
I do not think bonuses are appropriate for public employees, and I said so two years ago. But my proposal to eliminate bonuses did not get the support of my fellow commissioners. They argued that government should be run more like a business, and bonuses are a legitimate method of acknowledging and rewarding exceptional performance in business.
But government is not a business. In the area of bonuses, government doesn’t have a “profit,” the traditional source of business bonuses (except, it appears, on Wall Street). Jeffco managers and elected officials use budget savings to pay bonuses. But this begs two key questions: One, are the “savings” the result of efficient management, or just overbudgeting? Two, should those savings be parceled out to employees, or used to provide more service for our citizens?
County employees are public servants. That does not mean they should not be fairly compensated for their work. Our employees have families, mortgage or rent payments, and other obligations just like everyone else. And, on a practical management level, we also want to pay people comparably to our neighboring jurisdictions to prevent expensive turnover.
But people generally don’t go into government work if pay is their primary motivation. Most of our employees, from the snowplow drivers to the teachers in our Head Start program to the sheriff’s deputies out in awful weather (it is snowing as I write this), are committed to public service. They take pride in their work, and they take pride in the community they help build and maintain. When they do an exceptional job, it’s not because they are trying to get extra money.
Most bonuses are given to managerial-level employees, people whose work is seen by a manager with bonus authority. A great librarian or a great motor vehicle clerk is not as likely to come to the attention of someone with bonus authority as people who report directly to senior management. This can lead to a perception that the bonus system is unfair, and actually hurt employee morale.
There is, however, one type of bonus I support. That is a one-time payment given instead of a raise or cost-of-living increase. This “bonus” is more cost-effective than a raise. There are no retirement contributions paid on it, and it doesn’t add to the employee’s base pay. I think many of the bonuses that have attracted attention were really a payment in lieu of a raise, but until 2009 our accounting system recorded both as a “bonus.” So we just can’t tell.
The Board of County Commissioners, with the other elected officials, will reconsider the bonus policy this summer, after we get the results of a countywide compensation study. I am confident that we will come to a decision that appropriately values the contributions of our employees, but remembers that the shareholders of our business are you — our citizens.
Democrat Kathy Hartman is a Jefferson County commissioner.