Deschutes County wage add-ons rise

County pays $2 million a year for training, longevity pay, cell phone allowance and other costs

By Elon Glucklich / The Bulletin / @EGlucklich

Published Mar 30, 2014 at 12:01AM

More than 800 employees work across 22 Deschutes County government departments and service districts, collecting more than $80 million in annual salaries and benefits.

But the county routinely has paid $2 million extra in recent years in allowance for cellphone use, bonuses for employees who get new training or do work beyond their job descriptions, as well as longevity pay for some staff.

The $2 million totals about 4 percent of the county’s gross wages paid each year. A May internal audit said these payments “could benefit from a review.” That audit and a follow-up audit this month said county staff were largely keeping good track of the extra payments.

But a few departments, including the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office and the county Road Department, were sometimes inconsistent with their record-keeping. Most of those problems have been resolved, the follow-up audit found. Yet the additional payments seem to be on the rise, albeit slightly.

After spending just more than $2 million on additional wages between July 2011 and June 2012, the county spent $2.17 million on the same added payments the next fiscal year, according to figures provided by the Deschutes County human resources director.

Data aren’t available for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Things such as longevity pay and bonuses for new certification are written into employee contracts, Deschutes County Administrator Tom Anderson said Thursday.

“The bulk of it is out of our control,” Anderson said. “The longer our people are tenured, the higher their pay.” Nearly three-fourths of the total added pay over the last two years comes from longevity pay and certification bonuses.

But the county does have jurisdiction over a smaller source of funds, called lead pay, given to employees who take on work outside their basic responsibilities.

Some of that lead pay has helped fill personnel gaps in the wake of the 2008 housing market crash, which decimated property tax returns and forced staff reductions in a number of departments, Anderson and other county officials said.

The 809 full-time county employees total is actually down from 828 employees six years ago, county budget documents show.

But Deschutes County’s population has increased nearly 10,000 over that time, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

More than $230,000 in lead pay over the last two years has proved more cost-effective than adding new, full-time positions in many cases, County Commissioner Alan Unger said.

These dollar figures are likely to get a fresh look as the county’s budget situation improves amid a housing rebound and as more residents move in, Unger said.

“As the population grows, you have more services to provide,” he said. Extra revenue means the county would be more likely to add positions moving forward than rely on lead pay.

But adding new staff could also stretch the added pay figures tied to employee contracts.

“We’d always want to be able to rein that in and have it be less of an expense,” said County Commissioner Tony DeBone, who serves on the county’s audit committee.

Things such as longevity pay, certificate bonuses and cellphone allowance help retain talented workers, DeBone said. But commissioners will need to balance the need for new staff with the potential budget strains from these additional wage payments if the county’s population keeps growing, he said.

County officials will track the personnel figures as county leaders start mapping out the next fiscal year’s budget in April, Anderson said.

“My expectation is (lead pay) will shrink, not go away, but shrink as we more diligently look at it,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7820, eglucklich@bendbulletin.com