April 18, 2012"Well, what do you guys say — $2,154, is it worth it to keep somebody that's demonstrated they're good and doing a good job in collections, or are we unleveling the playing field for some others who need raises?"
That was the question President Jerry Brewer asked the rest of the Crawford County Council 25 minutes into its discussion Tuesday, April 10, at the judicial complex in English, after Prosecutor Cheryl Hillenburg requested the annual salary of her office's child support caseworker be raised to the average of similar positions in 11 area counties.
Following about another 45 minutes, including a motion that was seconded and then withdrawn and then another motion that died for lack of a second, the six members of the council, which was without member Joey Robinson, answered that it was more important to keep the playing field level.
Hillenburg made the request to bump the salary of Rhonda Haley, who has been in the position since 2004, before Hillenburg's time as prosecutor, from $22,495 — the amount that regular deputies in the various courthouse offices are paid — to $28,831.
Believing Haley to be one of the top child support caseworkers, Hillenburg repeatedly has unsuccessfully requested an increase in Haley's salary during the council's budget discussions since taking office in 2007. Hillenburg told the council that she couldn't wait until budget time later this year because Haley has been offered a job with the state that will pay her about $11,000 more.
Hillenburg said Haley has been offered the job "to supervise eight or nine counties because she's done such a great job." Crawford County, she said, currently ranks second in the state in paying on arrears, third in paternity establishment, seventh in collections and 10th in support order establishments.
"So, you look at we're not below No. 10 in the state, with 92 counties," Hillenburg said. "That's pretty incredible with one person doing all that work. That one person shouldn't be making the same as everybody else, especially when her money is going to be reimbursed."
The county receives 66-percent reimbursement from the state on Haley's salary, meaning the county's portion is less than $8,000 per year, Hillenburg said.
"Last year, you paid Rhonda $7,648.30 — that's the portion of her salary that you had to pay," she said. "You paid everybody else $22,495 or more. So, you paid about a third of what anybody else was paid because of the reimbursement."
Haley, in turn, generated $18,035 in child support incentive money for the county in 2011, as counties are awarded monetarily by the state and federal governments for the total amount of child support they collect, Hillenburg said.
"That money goes not only to the prosecutor's office, it goes to the clerk and it goes to county general," she said.
Many counties, Hillenburg said, have a child support deputy, but hers doesn't.
"Rhonda is the only one working on it full time," she said. "So, she generates, on an average, $13,293.66 a year for the county, and that's 59 percent of one salaried person's salary."
Not only did the amount of incentive money coming to the county increase sharply after Haley was hired, it has continued to increase, Hillenburg said.
"The economy's gotten worse, and we've gotten better in what we're bringing in," she said. "That says a lot for her."
Hillenburg, who said Haley has had past job opportunities but decided to stay for a variety of reasons, said losing Haley would almost certainly result in lower collections and, in turn, less incentive money.
"There's a 1-1/2-to-two-year learning curve in that position," she said. "If we lose her, and we're only paying $22,495, we're going to bring in somebody who has absolutely no experience, and we're going to spend a year and a half training them. That means that you're going to see a drop in the money that comes in because they're not going to be able to keep up like she is."
Hillenburg said that the prosecutor's office has a balance of about $19,000 of incentive money, as it can only be used for specific purposes, including funding another child support position or increasing the salary of the existing child support caseworker. However, the county would have to use general fund monies to receive the 66-percent reimbursement, as incentive money no longer is eligible, she said.
"When I asked the council last summer for money, we could still get reimbursement, and if she'd been getting paid $28,000, we could have gotten reimbursement for a six- or eight-month period, but we didn't," she said.
Hillenburg said her office has been fiscally responsible. She noted that it hasn't had a part-time employee since the council asked the offices to cut back and she didn't bring any employees back following mandatory layoffs.
"I ask that we deviate from the standard that we have to pay everybody the same and recognize that she is a very skilled employee," she said.
Several members of the council, including Brewer, said they understood her position.
"She's saying that if she has to get a new employee that's not as qualified, that's not as well trained, that we're not going to collect as much money for the county. … Also, probably, there's not going to be kids that's going to get their child support money if we don't have someone in place that's going to do a good job in collecting," he said. "So, we have to look at the welfare of the children."
Still, some members expressed concern about using general fund revenue, even if 66 percent would be reimbursed, to increase Haley's salary at a time when the county continues to deficit spend and has had to rely on non-general fund dollars, including Economic Development Income Tax monies which are being used to pay utilities, to meet expenses.
"Here's the problem that I see: We've got all these other counties, like Harrison County and Lawrence County and Switzerland County, but we've got our Crawford County budget," Councilman William Breeding said, referring to some of the 11 counties Hillenburg used to get the $28,831 average. "We don't have their money."
Councilman Steve Bartels asked Hillenburg about using incentive money on a yearly basis to pay for the salary increase, explaining he was opposed to changing the actual salary ordinance because, once raised, it cannot be lowered.
Hillenburg answered that she has enough incentive money on hand to pay the salary increase for at least three years, but she requested that the council guarantee the appropriation for each of those years. To do so for just this year, with no guarantee for the future, would not be fair to Haley, she said.
Council attorney Marcus Burgher IV said an option is to create an administrator position with the increased salary and move Haley to that, leaving the caseworker position unchanged and unfilled so that if Haley left and someone else was hired, the new person would be hired as the lower-paid caseworker.
Hillenburg agreed that could be a solution, but the council said that would be a future consideration since the county commissioners would be responsible for creating the position.
Breeding, however, still expressed concern, asking, "How low do we have to run it out of money before we quit spending more money every time we come here? I mean, how far are you guys willing to go down before we stop?"
"You can't spend that $19,000," Hillenburg replied. "That's not money you can touch. So, these people are not running down money that everybody else can spend. They're helping you make sure you have money in those other budgets, if she stays."
"Here's my concern," Breeding said. "It's not this; it's the whole 3-1/2 years I've been on here we keep spending more than we get coming in. We just keep going. Everybody wants a raise, everybody wants new equipment. I wonder where the stopping point's going to be. We've tapped almost every fund that I know of."
"If we don't do this," Councilman Jim Taylor said, "it's going to cost us more than if we do it."
Bartels, who said he supports increasing the salary but cannot "in good conscious, make a decision that affects every council from here on out" by changing the salary ordinance, made a motion, which was seconded by Taylor, to allow Hillenburg to use the incentive money her office has on hand to bump Haley's salary.
However, before Brewer called for a vote, the council, worried that other employees also would want a raise, began considering additional money that all full-time county employees receive — a $1,000 June bonus and longevity pay ($100 for each year a person has worked for the county) — as part of the amount to get Haley's salary up to the $28,831 mark.
"I don't think you can do it without ticking off the whole county employees," Breeding said of raising Haley's salary.
Bartels then withdrew his motion, but said he would be receptive to the council funding a higher-paid administrative position in 2013 instead of the current caseworker position, with the county then receiving the 66-percent reimbursement.
Brewer agreed, saying, "Then, we're not stepping on so many toes with she got a raise, because it's a different position with different duties and different responsibilities."
Taylor, however, said the council should allow Hillenburg, who is responsible for the incentive money she has on hand, to use it as she sees fit.
"If she's got the money there, I don't see why we can't let her appropriate however she wants to, and I'll make the motion that we let her do that, and, if no one wants to second it, that's OK," he said.
Taylor's motion died for a lack of a second.