By Peter H. Milliken
Union workers at the Mahoning County Children Services Board should know before Christmas whether they’ll be getting pay raises.
The Mahoning County commissioners have until Dec. 17 to approve or disapprove of the proposed 3 percent annual increases, or they’ll automatically take effect.
The matter does not appear on the agenda prepared for today’s 10 a.m. commissioners meeting in the county courthouse basement.
The child welfare agency’s chairman said paying competitive salaries is necessary for his agency to do its job properly, but the chairman of the county commissioners said giving raises could be damaging to the agency in uncertain economic times.
“We’re here to protect children, and this is how we’re attempting to do it by retaining our staff,” said CSB Chairman Luis Arroyo.
“Are we going to see another dip next year” in the economy and in the tax collections that depend on its performance, asked Anthony T. Traficanti, chairman of the county commissioners.
“Do things look any better for us? That’s my concern,” added Traficanti, who previously had called the proposed raises “unconscionable” in the current economic climate.
Their comments were part of a Wednesday discussion of the proposed pay increases in a commissioners staff meeting, but the commissioners took no vote on the matter.
The raises were approved by CSB on Nov, 16, and that board’s resolution to grant them was time-stamped by the commissioners’ clerk Nov. 17, thereby starting the commissioners 30-day time clock for action on the matter.
The pay increases were contained in a three-year contract CSB negotiated with the Communications Workers of America, which took effect Feb. 1, 2009.
However, the raises were never granted because the county commissioners approved the contract — but with a salary freeze.
The 115-member bargaining unit, which represents clerical and group-home workers and social workers at the child welfare agency, recently asked that the raises be revisited. The social workers are paid about $32,000 annually.
CSB’s vote to grant the raises came two weeks after voters renewed by a 2-1 margin a countywide 0.85-mill, five-year CSB real-estate-tax levy, which generates $1.75 million annually.
Mahoning County Children Services workers have a lower starting salary than their peers in neighboring counties, Denise Stewart, CSB executive director, told the commissioners.
Training time is expensive, and that problem is compounded by staff turnover when employees are recruited away by higher-paying agencies, Stewart said, noting that her staff members must get 102 hours of training during their first year of employment.
“We just went through strategic planning. We’ve reorganized the agency for efficiency,” Arroyo said, noting that his agency eliminated some staff positions and redirected staff to meet its clients’ needs.
The contract, which called for the raises, “is really to support our staff in showing that we appreciate their work and also the retention of staff,” Arroyo added.
“But how are we going to handle this if we keep seeing declining revenues?” Traficanti asked.
“If this trend would continue, and the public becomes so angry that they say, ‘You know what? We’re not going to vote for our levies,’ I mean, what do we do?’” Traficanti asked. “That’s the situation that the commissioners are facing right now.”
“One of the indications I see in the economy is 18 pages of unpaid taxes [in the newspaper]. They may have passed the levy, but they’re not paying their taxes to cover that levy,” said Victoria Wiery, the only CSB member to oppose the raises.
“Real estate is coming down in value,” resulting in reduced tax collections, she said.