Raises for Platte County employees go through despite split vote to approve budget

With the audience filled with members of the Platte County Sheriff’s Department staff, the Platte County Commission approved the county’s 2016 budget on a 2-1 vote this week. The budget features a flat prediction for sales tax growth at 2013 levels, a 1 percent wage adjustment for county employees, establishment of a $100,000 contingency account and establishment of a law enforcement reserve account. The reserve was started with a $500,000 transfer from the general fund and could pay for future law enforcement projects such as the expansion of the jail or continued updates to the federally mandated emergency radio system.

The approved budget, which included a few minor adjustments, primarily to fix typos and miscalculations, will be available on the county website at co.platte.mo.us.

Platte County auditor Kevin Robinson’s recommended budget featured a 1.5 percent wage adjustment for all county offices and departments, excluding elected officials, as well as a wage adjustment for practicing attorneys in the prosecutor’s office. A $90,000 lump sum to offset the state elimination of a grant that funded sheriff’s department wages was also suggested.

The commissioners pared that wage increase to 1 percent, but approved the adjustment for the attorneys and sheriff’s department employees. A new full-time employee position for the assessor’s office was also approved.

Presiding commissioner Ron Schieber voted against the budget, based on his disagreement with the decision to increase the county’s contribution to LAGERS, the Missouri government employee retirement program.

“The county has a very good retirement program,” Schieber said. “We need to find ways to stay competitive in the market, but enhancing our retirement is not the way to do it.”

Schieber said he found the budget process overall a pleasant one, and going into budgeting had four key concerns he wished to address: cost of living increases and the LAGERS contribution, tax growth projections, law enforcement and long-term maintenance and operations needs.

Concerning tax growth, Schieber said he felt it was yet to be determined whether state-reported increases in tax income were due to actual growth or to collection of back taxes. Use tax remained too volatile to predict patterns of growth.

“I am pleased this commission took steps for long-term law enforcement needs,” he said.

However, Schieber remains concerned that the county needs to address long-term maintenance of county facilities and parks. He said he expects to see plans for both within the next 60 days from the parks and facilities departments.

“It’s nice to be able to do projects and it looks better on the white boards, but we need to maintain what we have,” Schieber said.

Cost of living adjustments should not have been tackled until a long-range plan and a tax restructuring effort were undertaken, Schieber said, and this disagreement prompted his no vote.

Second district commissioner Duane Soper said he supported the 1 percent wage increase and the LAGERS increase. This was his fourth and last budget process, as he has no plans to run for re-election this year, and Soper said the process featured the best discussions he’d had during budgeting.

Audience member Janet Stark questioned why a cost-of-living increase would be granted when according to government reports the cost of living had not actually increased in the last year.

Robinson noted he never named the increase a cost-of-living adjustment and called his recommended 1.5 percent increase a wage adjustment. Adjustments previously had been made in 2013 and 2007, and the adjustment was suggested to help county employees catch up to other similarly-employed workers.

Platte County sheriff Mark Owen, who said he hadn’t planned to speak during the public hearing, also took to the podium. While he said he understood Schieber’s objections to the LAGERS increase, he felt he needed to defend his staff.

“There are people in this room who have been here 40 years, and they shouldn’t be treated as second-class citizens because they work for a tax-payer funded entity,” Owen said. “They have dedicated their lives to serving this community and shouldn’t be looked down upon because they’re county employees.

“These people have a right to enjoy life and be able to pay their bills, even after retirement.”

Schieber said his intent was to work together to reach an agreement on a competitive wage, not to insult county employees.

“I have the utmost respect for law enforcement, and it was not my intent to look down on them,” he said. Robinson said that over the last several years the county’s LAGERS contributions have trended down as several employees didn’t stay long enough to become vested in the program. He said the small increase the commission approved would make a significant difference to employee paychecks.

Soper and first district commissioner Beverlee Roper said they supported the budget and voted to approve it without further discussion.