Harvey County is in a unique position. According to personnel director Linda Kientz, the 11 position openings the county recently had were the most in her 30-plus years working in the county.

Such numerous openings — including a nursing position in the health department that has gone unfilled for over a year — raised a question about employee wages, one county administrator Anthony Swartzendruber brought before the Harvey County Commission at its meeting on Monday.

Following a market study approved by the commission during the 2019 budgeting process, Swartzendruber reported those results from the work of The Austin Peters Group back to the governing body, which found that the pay for Harvey County personnel (not including elected officials) lags behind the market — consisting of several surrounding peer counties and cities — by 5.75 percent.

Elected officials, it was reported, varied in meeting market averages when it came to pay, as did the benefits offered by Harvey County, but Swartzendruber pointed out just how much of a factor wages can be in relation to filling those openings.

"We have employees who are leaving us to take higher rates of pay, even if they're going to get lower benefits," Swartzendruber said.

Department heads have also reported the inability to be competitive (in terms of pay) when hiring employees, which is part of what led to the study.

The county has already budgeted a 2.15 percent market adjustment and 2.35 percent merit-based adjustment for employee wages in 2019, with The Austin Peters Group recommending an additional 5.75 percent pay increase based on the results of the market study. The plan, Swartzendruber said, would be to have those pay increases go into effect for the first full pay period of the new fiscal year (Jan. 12, 2019) — which would come from the fund balance in the affected funds, namely the general fund.

Adding on the 5.75 percent increase raised some concerns for the commissioners, as it would bring the total (potential) pay increase to 10.25 percent. Commissioner Chip Westfall questioned if that increase could be split over two years to offset the costs.

Meanwhile, commission chair Randy Hague questioned if the market-based increases can be applied only to those employees who do not currently meet market average salaries. Given that the market study did not look at every single county employees' wages (which Hague thought would be the case, like in 2012), Swartzendruber pointed at that approach would not necessarily be equitable. Though it was noted a study similar to 2012's can be done, that would come with its own additional costs — and not just relating to the additional work.

"Collectively, it could be a bigger dollar increase — plus the cost of the study," Westfall said. "We've gotta do something or we're going to be so far out of the market we're going to lose quality people."

"I'm not opposed to this, what I'm opposed to is everybody getting the same increase, even if they're already above market value," Hague said.

No action was required on Monday, and while commissioner Ron Krehbiel also voiced support for taking care of the county's employees he was also in favor of the county taking its time in making the decision on potential wage increases — with the item to be brought back for action at the Dec. 31 commission meeting.

Employees understand it is a delicate balance to try to reach for the commission when it comes to wage increases and noted appreciation for the governing body looking at the issue to try and help departments be more competitive in both retaining and recruiting employees.

"As a whole, a larger part of the organization is not necessarily in market range and it's getting hard to find quality people to come in to government nowadays," said Harvey County Undersheriff Shawn Chapman. "For retention purposes, I appreciate you guys at least looking at this because it would make a huge impact on our employees."

In other business, the county commission:

Questioned when work on the bank restoration project at West Park is planned to begin. Between the current high water levels and employees on holiday, Swartzendruber noted nothing will likely happen until 2019.
Was notified of the REAP general session scheduled for Jan. 17, 2019, which will address mental health issues. Commissioner Westfall suggested numerous county employees — namely law enforcement — plan on attending.
Received a report on the Kansas Economic Outlook from Swartzendruber, who highlighted data specific to Harvey County — including statistics pertaining to regional make up, as Harvey County has five percent of the employment, population and labor force for south central Kansas.
Heard updates from recent forums on work by local legislators to secure more funding for mental health centers and regional transportation projects.
Learned that Halstead will be holding its public hearing to review tax exemptions on Jan. 28, 2019, and for the commission to share any objections it may have.
Was informed that the Council of Governments will not be retaining its lobbyist for the upcoming session — as it was agreed among the members that there are enough organizations lobbying for the same issues the council would take up as its own causes.
Received statistics from this year's Senior Health Insurance Counseling for Kansas program, with Department on Aging Director Robert Carlton noting the program helped saved $102,364 for participants this year — an increase compared to the $52,000 saved last year.
Approved the legal services contract for the county, which remained unchanged (still costing $160,000 annually for the same panel of attorneys) from last year.
Authorized staff and architects to move forward in securing bids for work to replace a worn-down section of floor at the Solid Waste transfer station.