County Corner by Roger Baker

Gilpin County
Gilpin County

County Corner, November 10, 2011

By Roger Baker


The Gilpin County Commissioners’ work session on Tuesday should have been a time of celebration—the long budget process that began in August was finally brought to a sensible, if ultimately unsatisfying conclusion—but the final item of discussion was so acrimonious that it was hard to take much joy in the resolution.

As the Commissioners finally heard that the DOLA Gaming Impact Grant awards would mean very little extra income for the County—and also require very little in the way of matching funds—they could move ahead with the final tweaks on the 2012 budget.

But one of the things that had been waiting on the DOLA awards was whether, if and how to adjust employee salaries for 2012.

Of course, this is always a touchy subject—the Commissioners themselves are usually of two minds, wanting to reward the employees who provide the valuable services of the County on the one hand, yet recognizing the legitimate desires of the taxpayers to receive those services as inexpensively as possible on the other.

Because of the complicated factors and emotions involved, for the past several years—going back at least to 2005—the Commissioners have tried to quantify the process by using outside consultants to conduct a compensation survey that would try to establish what are—in the best free-market sense—competitive wages for County employees.

But there were two factors at play that made this scenario even trickier this year. First, because of the County’s ongoing financial limitations, the Commissioners hadn’t done such a survey for several years. Having an outside agency perform such a survey is itself expensive, but putting it off makes the changes likely to be more drastic when one is finally completed.

The second factor is what is going on in our national job picture: while some sectors are doing well, the continuing high unemployment figures have put considerable downward pressure on wages.

The upshot is that, if the results of the salary survey (which is, after all, only a tool) were implemented as is, while a few employees would receive much-needed increases, most employees would find their wages held steady, and a few would actually suffer pay cuts.

Worse yet, the constant realigning of positions within the County, as we try to do more with less, has resulted in some real anomalies—positions which used to be more highly ranked than others are now at the same level, or even lower. In some cases, nominally supervisory positions are classed in the same salary range as those positions which are being supervised!

Of course, everyone knows in this society a market-driven approach to salaries won’t be fair in every case—this is a society which pays its teachers $30,000 a year, and its athletes $30 million, after all—but for a responsible government official, there aren’t a lot of other good options.

In the end, the people responsible for County operations—the Department Directors, Elected Officials and others—are going to try to meet one more time to work out a compromise that will maybe be more fair, or make people less unhappy. I don’t know if we’ll get there, but it’s certainly worth the effort.