By Conrad Dudderar
Senior Staff Writer
EL RENO – Canadian County government employees are due to earn a 3% pay increase and a $1.7 million jail construction loan will be retired as part of a proposed $31-plus million annual county budget.
Canadian County Commissioners met Sept. 22 for their third FY 2021 general fund budget conference with Canadian County Excise Board members and other county officers inside the Canadian County Administration Building, 201 N Choctaw.
After spirited discussion, commissioners voted 3-0 to raise county employee salaries 3% and earmark about $1.2 million in remaining FY21 available funds toward future capital projects.
County officials had discussed giving raises between 2%-5% before commissioners settled on 3%.
Canadian County’s general fund budget is growing due to a steady increase in property tax revenues, which fund county government operations. This compares to the 20-month decline in county sales tax revenues, which help fund juvenile center operations.
County Commission Chairman Marc Hader believes the 3% salary increase was a reasonable compromise considering the current economic climate in which many people have faced job loss or reduction.
Hader, the District 1 commissioner, cited job security in county government.
“All the people that pay the taxes that pay all of our salaries, they’re the ones that are probably hurting worse than we are,” Hader said. “We’re blessed, as government employees, for the most part there hasn’t been a lot of places where we’ve had to lay people off.
“We’re still getting our paychecks and our benefits, and we’re able to sleep well at night. We’re not having to go out there and find a new job.”
Besides the 3% pay hike, Hader noted that Canadian County officers have discretion to give merit raises for employees in their departments.
Expressing a desire to “show restraint”, District 2 Commissioner David Anderson said he opposed giving raises “just because we have the money.” He preferred “putting any excess” funds toward future capital improvement projects – such as a new county administration building.
Commissioner Anderson said Canadian County officials have prioritized making county employee salaries comparable “to what other professionals make” in the private sector.
Anderson cited the many benefits that county government employees receive.
The new FY21 Canadian County general fund budget proposes further increases to county employees’ retirement and health insurance benefits.
Although he opposed giving raises, Commissioner Anderson voted “yes” on the 3% proposal.
“I believe in a collaborative work effort,” Anderson said. “Even if it’s our decision as the three commissioners, I do value the input of all elected officials and the excise board. I don’t want it to be a point of dissention. That was just my feelings and I wanted to air them.”
District 3 Commissioner Jack Stewart pointed out $1 million is already included in the proposed FY21 general fund budget for capital improvement projects.
Stewart believes there are ample funds in the budget to provide raises for county employees while setting aside considerable funds for future capital items.
Commissioner Stewart said he was “OK” with giving raises between 2-4%.
“I think taking everything into consideration, probably 3% is the best,” he said.
Canadian County Excise Board Member Lynda Ramsey advocated for a 5% pay raise for county employees.
“I believe we’re working during times that we’re putting our employees of Canadian County at risk,” said Ramsey, referring to the COVID-19 virus.
“They need to be rewarded for dealing with the public under these circumstances. … They need to be uplifted.”
FUTURE CAPITAL PROJECTS
The 3% pay increase for Canadian County employees would still leave $1,212,922 in the FY21 budget that can be used for future capital improvement projects.
This would be combined with $1 million already budgeted this year and another $2,886,359 in carryover funds earmarked for capital improvements.
Among possible future projects are construction of a new county administration building, and expansions to the county courthouse, juvenile center and sheriff’s office.
Commissioners do not want to seek a property or sales tax increase to funds these capital improvements, Hader emphasized.
Supporting a 4% salary hike for county employees, Canadian County Sheriff Chris West said he realizes the importance of capital improvements and building projects.
“As a leader and as a manager, there’s nothing as important as the people that we employ to directly do business with those that we all serve,” West said. “When we’re talking about compensation packages, while insurance is great and matching funds for investments is great, the primary reason that people work is to make a paycheck so that they can pay the bills.”
Citing their efforts working through a pandemic, Canadian County Assessor Matt Wehmuller believes county employees deserve to be paid more.
“If our employees are our greatest asset, we need to treat them like it,” Wehmuller said. “The starting wage at Hobby Lobby is $17 an hour, which is $35,360 (annually). That’s more than some people in the county make.”
Commissioner Stewart acknowledged the private sector “does pay a lot better” but noted private sector employees are “more susceptible” to layoffs.
Within the next year, Canadian County Commissioners will consider adopting a new performance-based pay adjustment plan. A new state law allows counties to establish a program allowing raises up to 5%-10% for employees meeting and exceeding standards.
JAIL DEBT PAY-OFF
Canadian County’s elected officials have agreed to pay off the $1.7 million left on a $4 million construction loan for the last jail expansion project.
The county has four years left on a 11-year note and has been paying about $465,000 annually on the loan.
Chairman Hader believes paying off this jail debt will help with future construction of county offices. He does not support building another jail expansion.
The county will be able to reallocate funds that were used for the annual jail debt payment for other capital needs, Commissioner Stewart added.
Over the past year, the inmate population has declined at the Canadian County Jail.
The sheriff’s office has recently utilized rental agreements with several other counties to house Canadian County inmates due to positive COVID-19 cases.