Economic woes prompt Stark County to review wage options for employees

·4 min read

Aug. 4—DICKINSON — Government employees are feeling inflation's pinch as real wages continue to decline when compared to civilian counterparts. Across the country, public entities are seeking fiscal solutions to employee pay and benefit concerns in efforts aimed at countering a red-hot civilian labor market and a US economy entering recession.

As the US dollar fell to a new low against other major currencies on Aug. 1, Stark County began a budgetary meeting mirroring those being held by numerous other government entities in North Dakota. The meeting sought to find a fiscally responsible solution to a problem gripping the nation — market comparable wages for public employees.

The Dunn County Commission unanimously approved a performance merit plan, which will include an average increase of 2.5% on the pay scale, as well as a cost of living allowance increase of 6.5%, totaling a 9% increase.

City of Dickinson commissioners also considered the recession, with its rising prices for gas, food and rent, when they discussed adopting a minimum of 2% merit based increases, coupled with an across-the-board 4% for cost of living allowance, for a total of 6%.

During the regularly scheduled Stark County Commission meeting on Aug. 2, Auditor Karen Richard briefed the status of ongoing budget preparations while highlighting the issue of pay for employees.

Speaking with The Dickinson Press, Stark County Commissioner Neal Messer said he and other county commissioners see the same concerns that other governmental entities have identified, and that Stark County wants to be "proactive" in solving the problem.

"This is a nationwide problem. Inflation is damaging our national and local economies in ways that no one could have imagined, because the last time it was this bad was over 40 years ago," Messer said. "Most of us weren't a part of navigating through the last major recession, so this is a new problem to solve for all of us and I believe that bringing the private sector mentality to the public sector forefront, in terms of compensation, is the path forward."

Messer proposed during the most recent county commission meeting a different approach to handling cost of living increases than those being considered by other entities.

"The reason I'm proposing doing a one-time payment is that we won't have to consider the impact on retirement, healthcare and those other kinds of things. 40% of our payroll is benefits and not wages, and 30% of our county budget is wages," Messer explained. "So that is the mindset I'm bringing to the table. I don't know where it is going to end up, but if the national number is 9.1% and we do a 5% raise and a $1,500 one-time COLA payout per employee that would be somewhere between 7 and 8%. Some people are going to say, 'Woah! That is way too much and we're giving away the farm to public employees,' while other people are going to say, 'Well if your a public employee and you're only getting a 7% raise, then you're making 2% less in real wages than you were last year.'"

Messer added, "So where is the sweet spot? That's where we are at the moment in our conversations."

During the meeting, Commissioners Carla Arthaud and Messer requested that the Auditor produce preliminary budgets with 4%, 5% and 6% wage increases and the same for one-time payments of $1,500 per employee. The commission plans to review those numbers during a budgetary process that will run through October.

Messer noted that the purpose of the ongoing discussions is to find a solution to attract and retain good employees by identifying fiscally sound market comparable compensation.

A budgetary presentation to the public is scheduled for Aug. 18, and will lead to an October finalize plan.

Inviting the public to attend and provide input in the process, Messer said the challenges currently faced by the county will require public input.

"It's not only the public employees who are facing the recession, it's the public sector too. Employees working out at Baker Boy, TMI or Fisher Industries are in the same position as the city, school districts or the county. So there are others out there who have, or are in the process of, trying to find that balance," Messer said. "I don't think we're there yet, which is why I brought it up and put it on the agenda. We want to be proactive instead of reactionary and we want public input on a fiscally sound solution."