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Forum Editorial: The proposed 8.5% pay increase for Cass County employees is ridiculous

The proposed 8.5% increase for Cass County employees would require raising property taxes by $3 million. It's appalling that the Cass County Commission is even considering raising taxes while families are themselves struggling with inflation.

Editorial FSA
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There’s no denying that rising inflation is taking a big bit out of the pocketbooks of families and small businesses. Inflation has risen about 8%, nudging up to 8.6% in the latest tally, in recent months.

American consumers haven’t been hit by that degree of soaring price escalation for more than four decades, before many living today were alive to experience.

There’s also no denying that employers of all kinds, public and private, have struggled mightily to find enough employees. A labor market that was tight before the pandemic now has become almost predatory, with desperate employers looking to poach help from other employers.

So we're not trying to minimize the strains of the moment we find ourselves navigating.

But it’s appalling that the Cass County Commission is even considering increasing pay for the almost 500 county employees by 8.5%. The county administrator recently made that recommendation to commissioners, saying it was the result of “thoughtful discussion,” and citing the Consumer Price Index as support.

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That “thoughtful discussion” apparently wasn't thoughtful enough to take into consideration the struggles of many taxpayers — few of whom could dream of receiving a cost of living adjustment remotely approaching 8.5%

County officials are quick to say that county pay scales lag. That might well be true, but even so, county employees have seen some very hefty increases recently.

Last year, county commissioners granted a 5.1% pay increase to compensate for the rising cost of living. In gross salaries, the county is spending $24.2 million this year, up 14% from last year because of the 5.1% hike and pay-scale adjustments to make salaries more competitive, as documented in a local salary study.

It’s important to remember that public sector pay scales often fall a bit below the private sector — but public sector benefits, including health insurance and pensions, are far more generous than most private employees, most of whom don’t receive a pension.

County Commissioner Chad Peterson acknowledged the difficulties posed by inflation, but said, “It seems the only people who are made whole are people in government.”

Exactly so. Those who work in the private sector — the majority of taxpayers — are far less cushioned than many public employees.

Let’s not forget that the Federal Reserve, the nation’s central bank, is working hard to subdue inflation, having recently raised interest rates by 0.75% after an earlier increase of 0.5% and has issued guidance that more increases are coming for the rest of the year and possibly next year as well.

This makes borrowing more expensive and will cool down the economy — with the very real possibility that it will tip the economy into recession, throwing many people out of work. So, following a painful process, the inflation rates we are now burdened with will almost surely go down.

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Cass County should be considering a cost of living adjustment that is more realistic and frankly less offensive to the taxpayers who will be paying the bill. An increase of $8.5% would require a property tax increase of $3 million.

Recently, for example, the Fargodome board approved a 3.5% cost of living increase for its staff. Commission Chairman Rick Steen, who noted the Fargodome increase, said he found the proposed 8.5% hike “hard for me to visualize.”

Targeted increases beyond something in the 3.5% range could be appropriate for certain categories of workers in especially high demand.

The Fargo City Commission, for instance, recently granted a 5% increase for public works and landfill employees, an adjustment made because of the difficulty of hiring and retaining heavy equipment operators, who are in high demand.

So, this is a plea for county commissioners to consider not only county employees, but also county taxpayers, when they decide how generous to be with a cost of living increase. We all must tighten our belts a notch during times like these.

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