Despite an expected $25 million drop in county revenues next year, the county personnel board asked the Ecker administration Monday to try to give employees some sort of merit pay increase for satisfactory performance.
For more than a decade, the county has given a 5 percent merit raise annually to employees whose work is deemed satisfactory. The county also paid premiums to workers who have special skills or work odd hours, as well as cost-of-living adjustments and longevity bonuses.
County Executive Charles I. Ecker, faced with an expected budget shortfall of at least $25 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1, had asked the personnel board to consider three pieces of legislation that would allow the county to omit the raises this year.
Sacrificing the increases would amount to a $2.3 million savings in next year's budget, said Cecil E. Bray, the deputy county administrator.
The legislation is needed because the wage increases are part of county law. If the law is left unchanged, the county will be forced to pay the raises and make cuts elsewhere.
Monday, the personnel board listened for three hours as county employees told them the county should do exactly that.
At the end of the session, the board told the administration to rethink its bill and come back with a new version before Feb. 22 -- the deadline for putting bills on the council's agenda.
Many of the protesters who attended Monday's meeting were employees who had been with the county two years or less. Virtually all said they joined the county for less pay than they were making previously because they knew that with merit increases, they would make up the difference over a period of years.
One employee said he was working two jobs as a temporary measure until his merit raises equaled what he was earning previously. If the administration bills become law, "You're gonna take away everything I've worked for," he told thepersonnel board. "If you do this, you're gonna lose a lot of people.You need to dig deep some place else other than pay."
Those sentiments were repeated and applauded continually by the more than 100 employees who showed up to listen and testify.
Ecker has told his department heads to trim $18 million from this fiscal year's budget, which ends June 30. Of that total, $2.1 million is expected to be savedby keeping positions vacant when a person leaves government.
The human cost of such a proposal, employees say, is that everyone remaining in the department has to work extra to pick up the slack.
Administrator Bray said he wanted to "reassure employees that their concerns are our concerns" and that "we will look at everything we can to minimize the impact" of forced budget cuts.
The county is asking that in the coming fiscal year there be no cost-of-living adjustment, that premium pay for licensed engineers be eliminated and that the county be given "the flexibility to adjust (merit and longevity increases) down to zero."
County administrator Buddy Roogow, who came to the meeting late because he had just returned from a New York meetingwith the Wall Street agencies that rate the county's bonds, reviewedfor employees the county's financial hardships and the need to make personal sacrifices.
The alternative to cutting raises, Roogow seemed to be implying, is furloughs and layoffs. "The last thing we wantto do is lay off employees," he said. "Dr. Ecker feels in his heart there is nothing more important than keeping employees."
Implication or not, the personnel board took the threat seriously. Board member Mimi O'Donnell asked if there was any way the personnel board could"prioritize the perceived draconian methods" suggested by the administration and make whatever happens apply to the coming fiscal year only.
"If there is any money available, I want to see it put into merit raises," O'Donnell said. "I want to save the merit system at all costs."
Other board members agreed on all counts. They wanted priorities established for what should be cut last; merit raises to be kept intact; and changes in the law to apply only to this year.
Eliminating the merit raise is "the hardest pill to swallow," board member Sandra Jaffe said.