County council eyes employee wages

BROWNSTOWN — The Jackson County Council has begun the process of trying to help officeholders who have been struggling to retain and hire qualified people to work for the county.

On Thursday night, the council held a special meeting at the courthouse to allow elected officials and department heads to discuss some of their employee needs and suggest potential solutions.

“The goal of this council meeting tonight is to develop and implement a two-step process to correct this,” council President Brian Thompson said.

The first step would be to address specific and immediate needs as soon as possible, he said.

The second step will be strategic in nature and would be more comprehensive to be completed after an extensive study and surveys both of county employee wages and the wages of county workers elsewhere, Thompson said. Any changes resulting from that study would be implemented during budget talks in 2024.

Several officeholders testified during the meeting.

Jackson Circuit Court Judge Richard W. Poynter told the council they had received what he plans to do to address the loss of some of his key staff in recent months.

Poynter’s plans call for a staff vacancy at this time to remain unfilled and to use the pay for that position to increase the pay of his remaining staff. He wrote that the move would have the effect of saving more than $22,000 in wages and benefits from the vacant position while allowing him to retain present staffing levels.

Prosecutor Jeff Chalfant asked the council to consider a similar request for his office with an unfilled position he presently has that is being filled with part-time help.

“I know that has a negative impact on the request of other county employees if you do that,” he said. “Someone else gets upset because they don’t get a raise.”

He said he knows morale suffers when people think they are being treated differently.

“At the same time, I know you have limited ability to do this,” Chalfant said. “That’s my request.”

Heather VonDielingen with Purdue Extension Jackson County asked the council to consider a 32-hour workweek for county-paid employees in that office with no reduction in pay or benefits.

“We would like to pilot this flexible work arrangement with our full-time county-paid staff from Dec. 1, 2023, to Aug. 31, 2024,” VonDielingen said. “By allowing this eight- to nine-month arrangement, we will be able to document and assess the effectiveness of this arrangement. We plan to do pre- and post-surveys with our office staff as well as documenting foot traffic, phone calls, email, etc. … Of course, we would also support a significant increase in the hourly rate as you’re considering the different options.”

The office has a vacancy since early August, VonDielingen said. The position had been secretarial but has now been changed to a technology and data management coordinator.

She said Purdue Extension has been studying the 32-hour workweek, and research has shown a flexible work schedule with fewer hours can result in as good of a productive employee, if not better.

“It improves morale,” VonDielingen said.

Sheriff Rick Meyer said the starting salary for a new state trooper is $70,000, while Columbus starts a new officer out at about $69,000. A new officer at the Seymour Police Department starts at $62,000, and Brownstown starts its new officers at $52,500.

“In 2023, the starting pay for a Jackson County deputy was $46,061,” Meyer said. “This ranged in the bottom quarter of the state. I am only asking to be in the middle range, which would be around $52,000 to $55,000.”

He suggested increasing starting pay and looking at providing longevity pay and other incentives for all sheriff personnel, including dispatchers and jailers.

Meyer said the department has lost 17 jail officers this year.

“Moving into the future, we are going to have to start looking at corrections as a career, not just a job,” he said. “Over 50% of our full-time employees have been working in the jail for two years or less, and 35% have one year or less experience.”

Nate Bryant, executive director of Jackson County Emergency Medical Services, said he would like to see the county offer longevity pay.

“I think that would encourage people to stay with Jackson County and not search elsewhere,” he said.

Bryant said he also would like to see the council look at emergency family leave of about 24 hours per year to take care of issues when needed.

“From what I understand, it really changes morale in the workplace for the better,” he said.

Dan Banks, director of the Jackson County Juvenile Home, said the role of the home has changed over the years, and it has become more of a treatment facility than a group home. The requires staff to have more complex skills.

He said he has a staff of 10 people, and there has been a turnover of about eight people over the past year or so.

“We have a few experienced people we can’t afford to lose,” Banks said.

He said he doesn’t have staff to cut, and his problem is it’s hard to get quality people. He suggested the council look at shift differentials for those willing to work weekends.

Jackson Superior Court I Judge AmyMarie Travis asked the council to consider giving her staff raises similar to anything Poynter’s receives because her staff does the same job.

Assessor Katie Kaufman and Auditor Staci Eglen suggested the council make the issue for officeholders requesting raises clear and consider longevity pay for long-term county employees.

Eglen asked the council to try to be consistent when giving raises.

“The knowledge these long-term employees hold is truly a huge asset to your county,” she said.

Eglen said longevity pay might not be possible, but there might be some other idea to recognize their longevity.

“As long as these employees are getting some type of recognition and appreciation, I think it goes a long way,” she said. “We have good workers, and they really do appreciate just being recognized for what they do.”

Eglen said courthouse employees do not have some of the incentives other county employees do, such as options for overtime pay, holiday pay, take-home vehicles and cellphones.

After the testimony, Councilman Brett Turner said Jackson County is a very financially stable county.

“How did we get there?” he said.

While that is a long, drawn-out story, the council has long been conservatively financial and has spent its money wisely, Turner said.

He said the council is working hard to address the pay issue and get it right.

“… and make it fair,” he said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

He said none of the council members have said giving county employees more money is a terrible idea.

“We just have to figure out how to do it fairly and keep this county financially stable,” he said.

Councilman Brady Riley gave a brief history of the raises county employees have received in recent years.

“Typically, each year, all employees receive cost of living raises,” he said. “In the past decade, county council has given special raises to different departments across the county.”

Those include the juvenile detention center at the sheriff’s department receiving additional 5% raises in 2008.

“In 2009, the jailers and dispatchers received an additional 5%, and in 2016, ‘17 and ‘18, EMS received an additional 9% raise each year,” he said. “In 2017, the county highway department received an additional 7%.”

He said now, the council finds for many of the lower-level positions, especially at the courthouse, pay has fallen behind compared to the private sector and many of the surrounding counties.

Riley said the council has been working hard to find a solution that can go into effect for 2024.

They have compiled data from various sources and also spoken with department heads within the courthouse to identify positions that need special attention they have not received over the 15 years.

“To the employees, thank you for speaking up,” Riley said. “As a council, I think we can improve this by allowing department heads to have input on raises for within their office. This is something the council used to do but currently does not. We haven’t given wages for the employees within the courthouse the attention they deserve. Moving forward, the council has a plan to help combat this in the future (the salary study).”

He said the council is actively working on a solution and hopes to act upon it at its next regular meeting, which is at 8 a.m. Wednesday at the courthouse.