Just 14 months ago, the Tooele County Commission was laying off workers and cutting benefits to adjust expenses to fit reduced revenue.
Last Tuesday night, the commission gave all county employees, including elected officials, a 3.75 percent Cost of Living Adjustment.
“The only reason we are able to consider offering our employees a COLA is because our financial recovery plan has been working,” said Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne. “This also is a recognition that since the employee reductions, the remaining employees have picked up extra work.”
While the decision to extend the COLA to merit employees was unanimous, the resolution to raise the salary of elected officials and their chief deputies passed with a 2-1 vote.
Milne gave the lone dissenting vote.
“I thought this would have been a good time for us as commissioners to set an example as good leaders and acknowledge that sometimes leaders should make personal sacrifices.” he said. “Being that the course correction of the county is still so fresh, it seems premature to reward ourselves for the turnaround we’re beginning to see.”
Milne was careful to distinguish between a COLA and a pay raise.
“COLAs are used to make up for the weakening of the dollar, due to inflation,” he said. “This is versus raises, which are provided upon merit when employees perform above minimum expectations.”
The county traditionally gave employees an annual COLA tied to the increase in cost of living expenses prior to the Great Recession, according to Jami McCart, Tooele County human resources director.
However, since 2010 employees only received one COLA of 1.5 percent in 2012, according to McCart.
Indicators used by most companies to set COLAs went up during the five years between 2010 and 2014, she added.
The federal government increased social security and supplemental social security income payments in 2012, 2103 and 2014 by 3.6, 1.7, and 1.5 percent, respectively.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics national consumer price index also went up each year from 2010 to the first half of 2014.
“Prior to the recession, it was a normal practice in private business, as well as for public employers, to offer some kind of annual adjustment to salaries based on the increase in cost of living,” said McCart. “The amount of the increase may have varied in how it was calculated and it usually depended on the company’s profitability as well.”
Tooele County employees used the public hearing on the mid-year budget adjustments that included the cost of living increase for merit employees to thank the commission for the pay increase.
“I’m grateful for the increase,” said Janet Garcia, who works as a cook for Tooele County aging services. “This will help. I’ve lost hours. I’m at 20 hours and I used to be at 30 hours. Thank you for keeping in mind us employees when you make hard decisions.”
Wayne Anderton, a roads department worker and chairman of the Utah Public Employee Association’s Tooele chapter, thanked the commissioners.
“I appreciate the raise,” he said. “Most of us have taken on extra duties and I just want to say ‘thank you.’”
Rachel Hester, Tooele City resident and Democratic candidate for county treasurer, agreed that county employees deserved a raise, but opposed the raise for elected officials.
“The amount of money that all of the elected officials make is ridiculous,” she said. “It doesn’t coincide with the average citizen. Out of principle you should not accept the increase. I urge every one of the elected officials to turn the increase. This is disgusting.”
David Vice, Tooele City resident, suggested that the salary for a county commissioner should be tied to the average salary of a Tooele County resident.
Vicki Griffith, Tooele County resident and former candidate for county commissioner, disagreed with Hester and Vice.
“To say that the commissioners’ pay should be the same as the average pay is ridiculous,” she said. “They are not the average employee. They are worth the money and should be paid more.”
Gary Searle, whose salary as the chief deputy county attorney was included in the resolution to raise elected officials salary, spoke in favor of the COLA adjustment for all employees, including elected officials.
“Obviously I have a vested interest in this, but I’ll say what other people don’t have the nerve to say,” he said. “The only reason you can do this is because your plan worked and nobody wants to give you any credit that your plan worked. With your budget committee and the advice you have taken, the cuts you have made and the hard decisions you have made, your plan worked. Thank you. You made tough decisions. You deserve it.”
The mid-year salary adjustment will not require an increase in the county’s overall budgeted expenses for 2014 because the county commissioners included $220,000 in the human resources budget for a potential salary adjustment if financial conditions indicated that an adjustment was feasible, said Tooele County Auditor Mike Jensen.
The increase for elected officials is roughly 5 percent of the total amount of the approved salary increase, according to Jensen.