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County commissioners approve lower wage increase for employees

by HEIDI DESCH
Daily Inter Lake | June 12, 2024 12:00 AM

Flathead County commissioners on Tuesday approved an increase in wages for elected officials, which in turn increases county employee wages at a matching rate of 3.2%.

But the figure was below the 4.1% sought by several members of the county compensation committee.

Commissioners said they couldn’t increase wages at a higher rate while dealing with operation budgets expected to increase by up to 9% for county departments. A larger bump in wages would require an increase in taxes, they said. 

Commissioner Pam Holmquist said in the 14 years she’s served on the commission the county is facing the lowest cash reserves in its budget. 

“It’s expensive to live here and we’re trying to bring in new people who want to buy homes,” she said during the compensation committee meeting. “Everything is going up, it’s not just salaries. We would like to give more because obviously we care about our employees. But everything is going up.” 

Increasing wages by 3.2% is estimated to cost $1.3 million, while increasing wages by 4.1% would have cost the county $1.69 million. 

Some elected officials during the compensation committee meeting last week expressed the need for wages to increase to assist in filling vacancies and retaining employees who are leaving for similar jobs with municipalities and the state. The county has 593 employees and of that is looking to fill 55 vacancies. 

County Attorney Travis Ahner last week advocated for a higher increase for all county employees. There are six vacancies in the County Attorney’s Office and several of those positions have been open for over a year, he noted.

“In my own office experience, Flathead County continues to just hang on compared to the cities and compared to other government jobs,” he said. “We’re not looking at are we competing with the private sector, but with other government jobs. It’s like we’re trying to ride a bike as slowly as we can without crashing the bike, but we’re still falling behind and we’re still struggling.”

Ahner said he’s tired of attempting to hire and failing to garner any applicants. 

“To fall any further behind is not going to do my office any good and it’s not going to do the citizens of Flathead County any good,” he said. 

The starting wage for a Sheriff’s Office deputy in Flathead County is $31.54, while most larger counties start at $32, Sheriff Brian Heino pointed out. He noted that while many current employees own homes here it can be difficult for new hires to pay rent or buy a home. 

“We’re trying to balance keeping our staff and some of the limitations we have,” he said. “We need to look at a balance of everything we’re looking to do — be conscientious of taxpayer dollars, but keep up with wages.” 

The cost of living pay increase is effective July 1. According to state law, the county has to increase the salaries of elected officials by the same percentage when raises are given to county employees. For example, the sheriff’s salary sets the subsequent pay for deputies.

Last year most county employees received a 4% raise, while some deputies in the County Attorney’s Office, which has suffered from long term vacancies, saw a bump of 9% factoring in cost of living and a market rate increase.

Flathead County Clerk of the Court Clerk Peg Allison said starting July 1, her office will be $2 below the minimum wage for the state, which provides much of her competition for hiring.

“We’ve been down two to four people consistently since 2019,” she said. “We will likely lose two to three people in December.” 

During the committee meeting, Commissioner Randy Brodehl asked about eliminating positions as a way to find savings to allow for increased wages. 

County Administrator Pete Melnick recommended against the option noting that the positions are needed across busy county departments. 

“I would strongly recommend that we do not lose any positions, " Melnick said. “We continue to aggressively recruit. Across the board, the positions that we have added have added value and service delivery.”

A vote before the compensation committee to increase wages by 3% failed on a tie vote before an increase of 3.2% seemingly passed as a compromise. 

Though Ahner, Allison and County Treasurer Adele Krantz voted against both options after advocating for a higher increase. Heino changed his vote to the affirmative for the 3.2% after voting against 3%. 

The sheriff’s salary will be $114,747; the two justices of the peace increase to $100,497; the county attorney’s salary increase to $147,304; and the county commissioners, clerk of district court, county treasurer, county clerk and superintendent of schools all increase to $87,154.

Deputy Editor Heidi Desch may be reached at 758-4421 or hdesch@dailyinterlake.com.