‘Somebody has to get this straightened out’

Montmorency County board criticized for pay disparities

ATLANTA — Montmorency County department heads on Wednesday criticized the county board’s handling of salary increases.

District Court Judge Benjamin Bolser on Wednesday told commissioners “there’s no rhyme or reason” to how they set wages. New employees are sometimes hired in at a wage that is $3 or $4 more per hour than what the county’s longtime employees make, Bolser said, which he said is unfair.

“Somebody has to get this straightened out,” he said. “Morale here is at an all-time low.”

Commissioners, meanwhile, said they have to consider raises carefully because the county struggles financially. The board, for example, recently submitted a corrective action plan to the state because its pension funds fell below 60% of liabilities, meaning that, if all retirement benefits were claimed today, about six out of every 10 retirees would receive what they are owed.

Commissioner Bert LaFleche said there has always been a fight for wages with the county’s employees.

“What we’d done back then, we didn’t give them money, we gave them benefits,” he said. “And today, those benefits have caught up with us.”

Meanwhile, Treasurer Jean Klein told the board she has discovered departments are spending money without looking to see if there is money in the account.

She said departments have overspent specific budget lines without letting her know, so she cannot amend the budget properly.

Wednesday’s discussion began when District Court Magistrate Kristen Cheedie on Wednesday asked commissioners to give one of her employees a pay increase of $1 per hour. Cheedie explained that the employee, whom she did not name on Wednesday, has worked for the county for the last six years.

That employee was hired in at a rate of $13.60 per hour in 2015 and is now paid $14.43 per hour. Cheedie said the county has hired new employees with no experience who earn $15.50 per hour, and she said a $1-an-hour increase for her employee is fair.

“I know other department heads are upset, but this is where we are,” she said. “We have no policy for step increases that we used to have and it’s created, unfortunately, contention in the building. And I’ve said this before — I think I said it last year — it’s unbalanced. The payroll is unbalanced here, and I just feel I have to come fight for my employee.”

Commissioner Daryl Peterson said non-union employees received a 50-cent increase in January and that he would rather wait and consider wage increases in January 2020.

Chairman Dave Wagner said he could not support a dollar increase, but could support a 50-cent increase for that employee.

A motion to give that employee a $1 an hour raise failed 4-1, with Peterson, Wagner, LaFleche and board Vice Chairman Don Edwards casting the dissenting votes. Commissioner Gary Girardin voted in favor of the increase. The board unanimously approved a 50-cent raise for that employee.

Sheriff Chad Brown said employees aren’t always liabilities and expenses, they’re also “true assets.” Brown said he knows from experience that finding able-bodied individuals to fulfill positions is extremely difficult in the county.

“At some point in time, we have to figure a way to compensate every person in this building,” he said, suggesting “a wage study that at least gets them up to a point where it’s equitable to work in this county and they don’t go to Alpena or they don’t go to Otsego (counties).”

Edwards said he would like to review everybody’s pay again. Edwards said he hates the way the county handling salary increases now.

“We gotta do something because what we’re doing is not solving the problem at all,” Edwards said.

Crystal Nelson can be reached at 989-358-5687 or cnelson@thealpenanews.com.

In other business

The Montmorency County Board of Commissionrs on Wednesday also:

∫ Authorized District Court Judge Benjamin Bolser to restart and chair a courthouse security committee. Bolser told the board the county already has a security committee in place but must reactivate it by state mandate. He said the state is now requiring updates by the end of March each year, with March 2020 being the first year the update is due. The security committee will meet quarterly.