T.J. Assion is my poster boy for the struggle that is government operations.
He is the union president of the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Department and, generally, a good guy to spend a few beers with and talk football, kids, or in the case of the past year that I have been watching county pay raises, county operations from his colleagues’ viewpoint.
The deputies have a lot to say about county compensation.
They are the work force that, as you read this today, gave $3 million back to the county over the past three years in the form of wage reductions, surrendered uniform fees, hazard pay and a host of other concessions. In 2010, 210 jail beds were closed and 66 deputies were laid off — increasing the work burdens on the remaining staff.
I first met Assion last January, not long after I wrote about the crazy pay raises of 15 percent and more in the office of county Prosecutor Paul J. Gains. At that time, though he had tones of frustration in his voice for the imbalance in county worker pay issues, he was strongly loyal to his county peers, even applauding Gains for going to bat the way he did for his workers.
That was in January, or better put, $600,000 in pay raises ago.
In those nine or so months, deputies are still on layoff, attack incidents on officers, according to Assion, have risen inside the jail, and cells stay closed.
Today, Assion’s tone is a bit different.
Over the summer, $225,000 in pay raises were handed out around county operations.
“It’s pretty sad when a cook at the juvenile center or a typist in the veterans’ office make more than deputies, who put their lives at risk,” said Assion when presented with the latest data.
Like many of the trends in county pay, much of the new money is going to folks who aren’t making a ton of cash. Of the 240 staffers who received raises from May to August, 70 of them have annual salaries under $30,000; 60 people earned between $30,000 and $50,000.
But 18 raises went to people, mainly managers, making more than $60,000 annually, including county Health Commissioner Matthew Stefanak, who earned his third raise in 12 months to total $103,000.
Of the $225,000 in raises, about $114,000 of that went to Judge Theresa Dellick’s juvenile-court area. The raises were 3 percent or 4 percent in just about all instances. Of the 103 staffers to get raises there, half earn less than $30,000 and tended to be the ones who received the 4 percent bumps. Upper staff received the 3 percent.
“We’re very cognizant of how hard it is economically in our community,” said Anthony D’Apolito, juvenile court administrator and magistrate. “We would not want to slap anyone in the face by disregarding the challenges that exist in the community we serve.”
D’Apolito said offering raises was a tough decision, but was made with several factors in mind.
In 2009, juvenile court staffers took 5 percent pay cuts. Since that time, the court has trimmed staffing by 48 employees overall, and cut $1 million in spending drawn from the sales tax. They’re also anticipating an impact on staffers in whatever shakes out from the Issue 2 process, especially increased shares in health-care costs.
“It’s my honest-to-God opinion that we’re trying to do the right thing for people doing their best to serve in a depressed county that is also a cynical county because of the past governments. I know the perception that’s out there. I hope we can overcome it,” D’Apolito added.
The county health board raises bother me a bit more, and illustrate to me the problems that will roll on with government spending regardless of what Issue 2 attempts to fix.
It’s a $5 million annual agency with about 70 percent of the funds coming from some form of taxes — local property, federal payments and incremental amounts from local governments.
Its 39 staff raises in June and July were like the court’s in that they were capped — these at 2 percent. But opposite of juvenile court, the health board’s lower paid staffers received 1 percent compared to 2 percent for upper staff, including Stefanak.
But what bothers me more about the board’s trend is this: D’Apolito acknowledges it’s a depressed county, and that staff sat flat on their pay for two years after taking a 5 percent cut. Assion’s deputy co-workers have totaled $3 million in givebacks since 2009, including a 10 percent pay cut that is still in place.
But since 2009, the health board’s pay raises have just rolled along without pause. In 2008, the top health staffers took a six-month pay cut by dropping to four-day workweeks.
The pay was restored in 2009 and topped off with 3 percent raises. Raises in 2010 totaled 2.75 percent. In January, Stefanak and four other top staffers received raises up to 1.5 percent. And finally, they got an additional 2 percent this summer.
Stefanak, who’s retiring next year, said his staff, like others, is doing more with less, and the raises are an attempt to keep quality people.
The board had 63 staffers in 2007, and now has 48 people. Of those reductions, five were upper-management posts.
Both the court and the health department employed identical rationale that is just not working in the private sector, or with the deputies — which is justifying the raises due to increased duties. Piling on duties is happening virtually everywhere, including the jail, with no compensation changes tied to it in most cases that I know of.
Another logic annoyance I have with the health board mind-set: One staffer who was promoted a few years ago from within the department has had raises of 5 percent or 6 percent each of the past three years to get that position’s pay level to $70,000 — what it is at peer health districts.
Stefanak said peer pay was the same logic for the January 2011 raises of 1.5 percent for him and a few other top staffers. (That same logic was employed with beefy Youngstown State University raises that I pointed out this summer.)
There is no legal requirement for that. It’s a tool used more when you have to do it, not when you just want to do it.
But this board wants to do it.
Reasoning for that, to me, is this: Why does the top boss, Stefanak, need raises of 2.75 percent, 1.5 percent and 2 percent over the past 12 months when he is retiring next year? He’s not about to leap to a better-paying health district in Franklin County.
Hence, it’s not about peer and position.
It’s about power and pension.
And when you see it across so many pockets of government, you realize it’s not just a YSU thing; it’s not just a health board thing; and, ultimately — because these are management jobs — it’s not an Issue 2 thing.
It will, however, be a deputy thing.
The government body that’s given the most will, soon enough, have many of their $3 million concessions up for review.
And Assion’s been keeping score. He has a little less esprit de corps about all of this than he did back in January.
Government actions, in time, even wear out government staffers.
Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs, too, on vindy.com.