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December 5, 2013

County OKs manager raises in '14 budget

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — COOPERSTOWN — Eighty Otsego County managerial workers, including two elected officials, will be getting pay raises early next year after a narrowly divided county Board of Representatives decided Wednesday that nearly six years without an increase was too long.

Some managers had gone without raises for so long that the union workers they supervise now get paid more than they do.

In one of the closest votes in recent years, the pro-raise faction, following a heated debate, narrowly edged the objectors, with 3,211 weighed votes in favor of the pay hike to 3,016 opposed to it.

The issue threatened to become a last-minute hitch in the adoption of a county budget for 2014. But the $125 million spending plan, as expected, was approved after the schedule of raises was added to the fiscal blueprint.

The budget levy for 2014 will amount to an increase of .14 over the amount called for in 2013, according to county Treasurer Dan Crowell. The tax levy increase, which hinges in part on the budget levy, will not be known until later this month, he said.

Non-union employees who have been on the payroll for five years or longer will see their salaries increase by 5 percent effective Jan. 1, while the increases would amount to 1 percent per year for each year of longevity for the others. For instance, a manager who has been on the job for three years and seven months would get a pay increase of just shy of 3.6 percent.

The increases will not be retroactive. They will cost the county approximately $159,000 in the coming year, officials said.

The two elected officials getting the raises are County Clerk Kathy Sinnott Gardner and Sheriff Richard Devlin Jr. Both qualified for the 5-percent raise, based on their length of service.

The raise proposal was cinched when Rep. James Powers, R-Butternuts, broke ranks with his fellow Republicans to join the board’s seven Democrats in coming out for the increases.

Powers is one of the board’s seven Republicans. They control county government because, as a group, they have more weighted votes than Democrats, an advantage that will be even stronger come January because of the November election results.

“We owe it to them to do this now,” Powers said.

Rep. Pauline Koren, R-Milford, argued the pay plan emerged too suddenly and contended that the raises should be limited to merit-based awards.

“I’m still not clear on where this money is coming from,” she added, calling for more time to review potential options.

But Rep. Katherine Stuligross, D-Oneonta, pointed out there is currently no merit-pay system in effect, and said now would be the best time to approve the raises, given that the county budget called for such a tiny budget levy increase with no threat of going above the state-imposed tax cap.

Echoing that view were all the Democrats on the county board. “We need to act now,” said Rep. Linda Rowinski, D-Oneonta.

Denying the raises would amount to “a slap in the face” to dedicated county workers who have carried out the board’s mandates to make their departments run as efficiently as possible, said Rep. Gary Koutnik, D-Oneonta.

“If not now, when?” asked Rep. Rich Murphy, D-town of Oneonta, one of the three Democrats who will not be returning in January. Rep. John Kosmer, D-Fly Creek, lost his seat in November to Republican Rick Hulse Jr., while Rep. Catherine Rothenberger, D-Oneonta, after serving on the board for 18 years, did not seek re-election.

Rothenberger gave the most impassioned speech in favor of the raises, arguing that the board has too many members to agree on a merit-based pay system and contending it should downsize the body from 14 members and hire a county manager.

Republicans were critical of a maneuver by Crowell, who budgeted $200,000 more than what proved to be needed for employee health care plans and advised the board members they could tap that money for the raises. Crowell, an independently elected official, said he proposed that his own pay remain flat.

The board’s chairwoman, Rep. Kathy Clark, R-Otego, took a jab at Crowell, noting during the debate that several days before the November election he had come out in opposition to raises. She said she spoke to Crowell Wednesday morning and reminded him of that.

“He said it wasn’t the time because it was election time,” she said.

Interviewed later, Crowell did not deny the remark, but said he did not call for the raises then because he thought if he did so it would “politicize” the issue.

“I didn’t want it to seem like I was doing it to win votes,” he explained. “It was a few days before the election, and there were still budget variables out there.”

Advocates of the raise argued the proposal should not have come as a surprise to those who said they wanted more time to study the pay hikes as the proposed salary schedule was discussed in November and because Crowell had framed a similar plan early in the year.

County department heads said they were pleased that the raises were approved. “This was long overdue,” said Susan Matt, the director of the county’s Mental Health Services Department. “We still have managers who are making less than the people they are supervising.”

Crowell said the county appears to be on solid financial footing, in part because what had been hefty increases in annual pension costs have tapered off, the national economy has begun to improve and the state has capped Medicaid costs that are passed on to counties.

In another matter having an impact on the county’s purse strings, Rep. Keith McCarty, R-Springfield, said the county is confident that it will soon settle a legal dispute with the insurance carrier for a trucking company that owned a vehicle that heavily damaged a small bridge on County Route 11-C earlier this year.

he insurance company has agreed to pay some $990,000, he said. The county anticipates that it will now have to only spend $700,000 of its own money to replace the bridge with a sturdier structure, McCarty said.

The bridge, just north of Brewery Ommegang off County Highway 33, has remained closed since the incident, forcing motorists to take detours in that area.