County board votes to increase salaries of elected officials by 2.4 percent for upcoming fiscal year

The Cascade County compensation board voted unanimously to apply a 2.4 cost of living increase to the salaries for elected officials for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

That amounts to an increase in base pay for the elected officials of $1,513.60 for the three commissioners, treasurer, clerk and recorder, clerk of court, two justice of the peace and the sheriff. The increase for the county attorney is $2,770.30. That equates to $16,392.70 in total for the increase in base pay for all of the elected officials.

The compensation board includes three county commissioners, county treasurer, clerk of court, sheriff, county attorney and three private citizens.
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The salaries of county deputies are tied to the sheriff’s salary under state law and the law also requires that the salaries of elected officials are all changed or none are changed at the same time.

The county will also apply to 2.4 COLA to its non-union employees.

Additional laws apply to the county attorney’s salary but the increase for other elected officials is applied to his or her salary as long as it doesn’t exceed the salary of district court judges.
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Law prescribes additional payments for certain elected officials and longevity payments for sheriff’s deputies and deputy county attorneys.

The current base salaries for Cascade County officials are:

  • County Commissioners: $63,066.57
  • Treasurer: $63,066.57
  • Clerk and Recorder: $63,066.57
  • Clerk of Court: $63,066.57
  • Justice of the Peace (2): $63,066.57
  • County Attorney: $115,429.37
  • Sheriff: $63,066.57

With the COLA increase for elected officials and non-union employees, plus the estimated longevity and collective bargaining agreement increases for union employees, the county is looking at an additional $765,258.31 for salaries in the fiscal year 2020 budget, which begins July 1, but has not yet been presented to the commission for approval.

During the May 29 compensation board meeting, County Commission Joe Briggs said that it’s an oddity in state law that ties the salaries of deputy’s to the sheriff and something they’ve tried to change at the legislature in the past with little success.

Jeff Mora, the county’s human resources director, said that wages are vital to employee retention and recruitment.

He said the county isn’t in a position to match private sector wages, which increased 5.7 percent over the last two years in the county, according to Chmura Economic’s Jobs EQ system and provided by the county.

Mora said that wages and benefits are a substantial portion of the county budget and that there are 333 employees on the county’s insurance plan for an annual $2.9 million cost to the county.

He said the county contributes $623 per month to employee’s health insurance premiums.

The county also has 11 collective bargaining agreements that typically have three-year terms.

A number of those agreements are being negotiated this year. Mora said that the figures aren’t nailed down, but they’re estimating an additional annual cost of $562,129 for the salary increases with the labor unions.

Mora said there wasn’t an increase in the county’s insurance rates because there was a reduction in claims this year.

Briggs is a trustee with the Montana Association of Counties Health Care Trust, which is the county’s insurance provider. The trust was established in 2005 to “provide a cost-effective alternative for health insurance benefits for counties and county-related boards and districts,” according to MACo’s website. Briggs said the coverage benefits had improved over the years, particularly pertaining to pharmacy benefits.

Briggs said the industry typically sees and 8 to 10 percent increase in annual insurance costs. The city is facing a roughly 10 percent increase in health insurance costs, but the city covers more of the premiums, lowering the cost to employees.

Mary Embleton, county budget officer, said the fiscal year 2020 budget is still being developed, but that departments were instructed to hold budgets level with last year.

Embleton said property taxes should remain study for the next budget year.

But major taxpayers in the county, primarily Calumet Montana Refining, are protesting their tax valuations from 2017 and additional tax protests are anticipated.

The county tax appeal board voted last March to reduce Calumet’s valuation from $538 million to $312.5 million.
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That decision has been appealed by both Calumet and the Montana Department of Revenue to the Montana Tax Appeal Board. A hearing is set for Feb. 19, 2020.

The protested taxes equate to $2.1 million county-wide, Embleton said. For the county’s tax revenue, that is $387,770, Embleton said.
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The tax protests also affect the school district and the City of Great Falls.

Local governmental agencies can spend the protested taxes, but if the protesting company wins their appeals, the money has to be paid back with interest, Briggs said.

He said that the county doesn’t feel comfortable spending those dollars, but Great Falls Public Schools is spending their portion of the protested taxes.

Local governments are limited in how much they can raise taxes annually. The state limits local governments to half the rate of inflation over the previous three years. Last year that was 0.82 percent for the county, Embleton said.

That equated to $682,000 for fiscal year 2019, which ends June 30.

The amount of inflation rarely keeps up with the increase in expenses, Embleton said.

“It’s hard to keep up,” she said.

Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said that wages are tough on recruitment in his department.

He said that deputies start around $45,000 a year and that officers at the Great Falls Police Department make more and their health insurance is cheaper.

In the city, employees pay about $170 per month for family plans, compared to $1,250 per month in the county for the family plan.

“It’s tough,” he said.

Slaughter said the fear is that the county invests money in training new deputies to lose them to departments with higher wages.

He said that he believes the entry level salary for deputies needs to increase.

“Once you come to Cascade County, you find out there’s a log of amazing things here,” Slaughter said, and that the county has lower housing costs.

Mora said the turnover rate is about 21 percent countywide.

Clerk of Court Faye McWilliams said that her office has had a lot of turnover and that the starting wage is $12.50 for a clerk. She said many of the young employees have families and the insurance costs are a factor in retention.

Briggs said that the county wages are lower than the private sector but that retirement benefits are better, with the exception of the city, which has better benefits.

Commissioner Jane Weber said “there’s only a finite amount of money” and a majority of expenses for the county is personnel.

Briggs said the county has tried to move things online such as vehicle registration, to reduce staffing needs, but people are slow adopters.

He said that finite resources coupled with protested taxes mean the county has to consider deferred maintenance or cut people.

“But having to train and retrain people eats our lunch too,” Briggs said.

Briggs said that if they could raise deputy salaries without increasing elected officials salaries, he would be fine not to give themselves a raise.

Slaughter said he’s comfortable asking for more money since it affects his deputies.

Commissioner Jim Larson said he also found it problematic that their salaries were tied to deputies salaries.

“I don’t know that we necessarily have to have these raises,” he said, but wanted deputies to get a raise.

“We have to keep the people we train,” Larson said.