In preliminary budget plan, Cass County agrees to 8.5% cost-of-living increase for employees
A few county commissioners said they wouldn't support the largest pay bump in at least 30 years.
FARGO — Although it's certainly up in the air, the Cass County Commission has voted for a possible 8.5% cost-of-living increase for the nearly 500 county workers for next year.
The board on Monday, June 6, voted unanimously to OK the proposed increase for the county's budget development this summer.
It would be the largest COLA increase in at least the past 30 years, with the closest figure coming last year at 5.1%, according to a chart presented to the commissioners. Most COLAs have been in the 2% to 3% range over those years.
Late last month, the county department heads recommended the increase. After a "thoughtul discussion," County Administrator Robert Wilson said they made the decision to continue using the longstanding practice of adopting a recommendation equal to the Consumer Price Index from April to April for Upper Midwest cities with populations of 500,000 or less.
Wilson said the department heads also pointed to the process of using the Consumer Price Index for nearly 20 years, arguing the increase was needed to remain competitive in the "extremely tight labor market." Despite approving extra pay raises in 2021 to remain competitive in the local job market, without the increase, the county would "simply maintain" its position, he said.
County Commissioner Chad Peterson said he realized the struggles with inflation but said, "It seems the only people who are made whole are people in government."
He said to cover the increase, it could mean an increase in the county levy of 3 mills, a substantial boost as a mill currently brings in about $1 million in property tax dollars.
The county is spending $24.2 million on gross salaries this year, which was up 14% from last year because of step increases, the 5.1% COLA increase and pay scale adjustments made in an effort to become more competitive after a local salary study was done.
County Board Chairman Rick Steen gave a comparison to the Fargodome board, which he serves on. Last week, he said, they agreed to a 3.5% increase for its employees. He said he thought the proposed county increase was "hard for me to visualize."
Commissioner Mary Scherling asked about possible bonuses for county employees instead of the larger COLA increase when the discussion turned to if the Consumer Price Index might go down.
State's Attorney Birch Burdick said he could research the issue but said the salary surveys taken about every three years by the county have shown the county to "always be behind."
Steen suggested they run the larger 8.5% increase through the budgeting process to see where they end up.
With the county installing a new accounting system, Wilson said, they may need a decision earlier than in past years.
He also said they could look at Consumer Price Index figures from May or June to see if there were any changes.
When the Consumer Price Index has been in the negative, Wilson and Burdick said, they gave no COLA increases.
The county salary total took a 30% drop, or about $8.5 million, in 2019 when the state government took over county human services departments as they went to a regional system and to help keep a check on property taxes.
Before last year's large increase, the county salary increase for 2021 was 1.5% without the COLA increases and only two new employees