County compensation board recommends salary increases; budget hearing opens Aug. 29

The county compensation board met Aug. 29 to discuss salaries for elected officials and non-union employees.

The board voted to recommend that the sheriff receive a 35 percent raise; the county attorney receive a flat increase of about $12,000; and the other elected county officials receive an eight percent cost of living increase, all effective Jan. 1, 2024.

The board is also recommending that non-union county employees receive an eight percent cost of living increase, retroactive to July 1, 2023, which is when the current fiscal year began.

County Commissioners will consider the board’s recommendation when they open their budget hearing at 9:30 a.m. Aug. 30. The proposed budget will be available for public review and comment until Sept. 7, when they are scheduled to close the hearing and vote on the budget.

County budget development continues, looking at public safety, library funding

State law makes deputy salaries a percentage of the sheriff’s salary, necessitating the larger increase in salary for Sheriff Jesse Slaughter. The county attorney’s salary is capped at the same level of a district court judge under state law.

The need for increased salaries to recruit and retain deputies and deputy county attorneys was a significant portion of the county’s public safety levy ask that voters approved in November 2022.

Commissioner Joe Briggs said that the 35 percent increase for the sheriff and deputies equates to additional $662,768, all of which is to be paid through the public safety levy funds.

So far, the deputy county attorney’s have negotiated a $10,000 increase each through their collective bargaining process, according to county officials. Those raises, plus the increase for County Attorney Josh Racki, are an additional $217,600, also to be paid through public safety levy funds.

County begins budget process

Briggs said he was recommending starting those pay increases Jan. 1, 2024 since the county won’t receive the first public safety levy funds until property tax bills are due in December.

That will also allow the county to start building a reserve of public safety levy reserve funds to account for any decrease in property tax revenue in the future, and also to be used for the pre-trial program the county hasn’t yet established.

County officials have not yet determined how they’ll use the public safety levy funds once deputy and deputy county attorney salaries reach the desired level.

Briggs said this year’s COLA is 8 percent, based on the consumer price index from the U.S. Department of Labor.

The increases for deputies, deputy county attorneys and other staff will also increase costs for insurance and other benefits, Briggs said.

Currently, state law requires that a county compensation board meet to make recommendations on salaries for the county treasurer, clerk and recorder, clerk of district court, county superintendent of schools, sheriff, county attorney and others. The law requires that county commissioners be paid the same amount as the county clerk and recorder, plus $2,000.

The sheriff also receives a $1,000 longevity increase annually.

The compensation board had met in March to recommend that the sheriff’s salary be increased at least 20 percent so that the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office officials could move forward with collective bargaining negotiations with deputies.

They opted to wait on other positions until they had more tax revenue information, setting that meeting for earlier in August, but moving it to Aug. 29 after learning of a potential tax appeal by Calumet.

The Montana Department of Revenue completed it’s informal internal review of Calumet and Montana Renewables and told city, county and school officials this week the valuation decreased slightly but by less than one percent, so a recertification wasn’t necessary. It’s still possible that Calumet and Montana Renewables could file a formal tax appeal.

Briggs said the county has about 16 collective bargaining units and personnel costs make up about 60 percent of the county budget.

He said they’re seeing the impact of the public safety levy salary increases for deputies and county attorneys in that other bargaining units are looking for increases.

He said recruitment and retention is always a challenge since they can’t compete with private sector wages.

Briggs said the county has current vacancies in CCSO, the county attorney’s office, justice court, the juvenile detention center, commission office, treasurer’s office, public works, aging services and the City-County Health Department.

Costs for employee health insurance also increased by about $314,000 for the 349 employees on the county’s plan.

The proposed budget also includes planned capital improvements such as a new roof at the Four Seasons Arena, a new roof at the courthouse annex where many county offices are housed, and the addition of a gymnasium at the juvenile detention center.

The county was allocated $15.8 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds and allocated most of that to other agencies for water, sewer, housing and other projects.

The county reserved about $3 million for their own projects and have expended $931,867 so far.

Briggs said departments were asked to hold their operating budgets flat and add in known personnel increases from collective bargaining agreements.

Briggs said that without the newly taxable property, the county was only able to increase the countywide mill by $538,739; the rural mill by $34,334 and the road mill by $53,459.

He said the county’s maximum property tax increase under the state regulations was 2.56 percent, which is half the average rate of inflation for the last three years.

For context, Briggs said the increases in health and property insurance were about $500,000 this year.