Due to ramifications of the ongoing pandemic, the Dubuque County Board of Supervisors last week discussed freezing scheduled raises for administrative positions.
In February, supervisors approved a 3% raise for sheriff, a 1.5% raise for other elected officials and a 0.75% raise for themselves for fiscal year 2021, beginning July 1. This came after the Dubuque County Compensation Board recommended higher raises for all positions, which the supervisors deemed too high for the second consecutive year.
But, the following month, the nation was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic wave. Its impacts to the economy, and the resulting effects on county government revenues, are yet to be fully realized but are expected to be significant.
Therefore, county Human Resources Director Dawn Sherman thought it best to check in.
“All of that was decided prior to COVID and experiencing the loss of revenues,” she said. “We’ve had discussions in the bargaining unit, but if there are going to be changes in this, they’ll need to be made in open session.”
Supervisor Jay Wickham pointed out changes to society and the economy caused by the pandemic, including significant unemployment, as reasons to reconsider.
“I think it’s wise for the board to look at our existing wage levels and existing increases to those wage levels and see if there are adjustments that need to be made,” he said.
Wickham therefore proposed a freeze of elected officials’ and non-bargaining county employees’ salaries at fiscal year 2020 levels, with some exceptions. That met with swift backlash from some of those whom the change would impact.
County Auditor Denise Dolan — who will retire at the end of her term in January 2021 — pointed to the supervisors’ ready appropriation of almost $2.4 million and the county’s spending of $1.4 million of that in an attempt to address the pandemic as proof that the county need not cut salary increases.
“There was no holding back in throwing money, by the board of supervisors, towards expenses for COVID,” she said.
Dolan reported receiving many comments from the public about that appropriation and spending.
“Subsequently, we now see a proposal to cut the wages to management personnel in the county,” she said. “I just think that’s a little sad and a little two-faced.”
Sheriff Joe Kennedy argued on behalf of his staff — deputy sheriff, captains and sergeants — whose salaries are tied to his and would therefore also be affected.
“They have been here every day that they’ve been scheduled, unlike many county employees who are being paid to sit at home,” he said. “We’ve not been offered hazard pay, which even private sector workers, manufacturing workers in this county have been offered. Sunnycrest (Manor) was offered double-time for overtime. My employees were not offered the same.”
Kennedy said his officers are already facing extra stress due to nationwide protests against the killing of unarmed black Americans by police.
“Our line of work, in case anybody hasn’t noticed, we’re under a lot of fire lately,” he said. “It’s hard enough for us to find and retain people. Now you want to take away their pay and benefits.”
Wickham explained that the exceptions he had mentioned were meant to include the sheriff’s office and Sunnycrest Manor.
County Veterans Affairs Executive Director Randy Rennison also lambasted the proposal.
Supervisor Dave Baker also argued against the wage freeze, characterizing it as “going after” county employees.
“I believe we should honor our commitments and go forward,” he said. “Then, if belt tightening is needed, we look at that next year and make whatever decisions we have to make.”
Supervisor Ann McDonough argued that the proposal warranted consideration, particularly due to the Iowa Legislature not budgeting any additional aid to local governments during its return to session.
“That we’re thinking about this is a reflection of the time we’re in,” she said. “But, everyone should know that the State of Iowa did us no favors over the last seven days.”
Supervisors did not act on the proposal June 15, but Wickham said it was not dead.
“If you ask anyone in the private sector how many employees in the private sector are receiving the types of wages we’re looking at, you won’t find them,” he said. “To go through our fund balances as if nothing has happened, I don’t think that is wise as a leader.”