By PETER H. MILLIKEN
Some 760 raises exceeding 3 percent were distributed to Mahoning County employees last year — for reasons including pension fixes, extra work tasks, other county pay rates and more.
Some county employees got two or three pay increases.
All of those were granted despite commissioners’ concern that dollars are so dire that they had sought an additional county sales tax to generate $7.75 million more per year.
The 2013 growth included the addition of 21 employees for a total workforce of 1,668.
There were 11 pay increases of 40 percent or more, 33 between 20 and 40 percent, and 113 between 10 and 20 percent, according to a list supplied to The Vindicator by the county auditor’s office.
In all, the county paid $2.37 million in salary and benefit-cost increases last year.
This analysis comes as county commissioners seek a continuous renewal of one of the county’s two half-percent sales taxes in the May 6 primary election. The other half-percent is already a continuous tax. Each tax generates about $15.5 million annually for the county.
Continuous means it never comes before voters again for approval, unless by a voter referendum.
After initially announcing interest in an additional sales tax for the May ballot, commissioners pulled it off in January fearing voters would reject both the renewal and the new tax.
Audrey Tillis, county budget director, said the county needs a quarter-percent additional sales tax to compensate for declines in state funding and investment income.
The county’s spending contrasts against a 2013 U.S. inflation rate of 1.47 percent, according to InflationData.com. And spending outpaced sales- tax growth in 2013, which only increased by $1.2 million.
Commissioners are quick to point out that many of the pay increases were paid from sources other than the county’s general fund and are beyond their control.
Some 250 raises were attributed to a Public Employee Retirement System “flip.”
Driven by public criticism that the government wage system had become imbalanced, many agencies, including the county, started having employees fully pay their 10 percent share of wages into pensions.
That “employee share” had been largely covered by the agencies, including the county. It was a cheaper benefit increase than raises a decade or two ago.
In 2012, the first county flips occurred in the auditor’s and clerk of courts offices, Tillis said. But in putting the “employee share” back on the workers, they received wage hikes equal to the pension amount — saving taxpayers nothing and just shuffling the funds.
'NO BLANKET ANSWERS'
“There’s no blanket answer,” that explains all the pay increases last year in county government, said Commissioner Chairman David Ditzler.
Some of the raises stemmed from promotions, and some were given to employees who took on more work due to job restructuring, he said. “There were quite a few job eliminations where there was combination of jobs,” he said.
Many jobs have built-in longevity-pay increases, he added.
“It’s very unfair to categorize all of the increases as: How can we afford to?” Ditzler said.
The county’s payroll and benefit costs totaled $123,818,372 last year, nearly 2 percent above the $121,450,137 spent in 2012.
Salary and benefits in 2014 are set to grow 2.8 percent to $127,345,186. Of the county’s budget, $70,041,473 is devoted to salaries.
Most of that 2012-2013 difference was due to a $2 million increase in hospitalization costs, with the increase in salaries and other benefits being $348,000, said Carol L. McFall, chief deputy county auditor.
Last year was the second straight year county employment increased over the previous year. It follows a period during which the number of workers declined from 1,957 in 2009 to 1,627 in 2011.
As for identifying pay-increase trends over the last three years, Tillis said: “That’s a hard question because of so many different funds” that pay employees within county government.
She said most of the county’s labor contracts for employees paid from the county’s general fund, however, included either no pay increases or only a PERS flip.
The county’s general fund annual revenue has declined from about $66.2 million in 2008 to this year’s total of about $50.2 million.
When comparing 2008 to 2013, the county’s general-fund revenue losses have included $3.2 million in lost investment income, $2.9 million in lost state funding and a $4.4 million loss in federal-prisoner revenue, Tillis said.
“The county commissioners have done a good job at holding the salaries and maintaining and being very prudent” in spending the dollars under their control on personnel they directly control, Ditzler said.
Except for a PERS flip in late 2012, the salaries of staff reporting directly to the county commissioners, including human resources, purchasing and the commissioners’ office staff, have been frozen for nearly five years, he said.
The commissioners also have been outspoken in communicating their budgetary constraints to all other elected county officials, he added.
“We’re not only trying to be accountable as county commissioners, but we’re trying to make all elected officials and boards accountable as well,” Ditzler said.
The commissioners have sent letters to all county elected officials, department heads, judges, and governing boards, telling them the commissioners want to meet with them in advance to discuss any proposed new hiring or salary changes, Ditzler said.
“If they’re making any hires at all, we want to know where the money’s coming from and why the position [is] needed,” he explained.
Ditzler also said he believes there should a uniform job and pay-scale classification system across all county agencies, which he said would help contain personnel costs.
HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS
County employees are paid from a host of funding sources, and their pay is determined by a variety of elected officials and governing boards, who supervise them.
“Each of our funds is like its own business, and we have about 200 businesses in this county” government, Tillis said.
There are 21 labor contracts covering unionized county workers.
The commissioners approve budgets and labor contracts for almost all county departments, but pay increases for nonunion personnel who don’t work directly for the commissioners are determined by eight elected department heads or nine governing boards or by the judges they work for.
The general fund, where most of the sales-tax revenue goes, supports the county jail, court system and prosecutor’s office and the central administration of county government. It is the county’s main operating fund.
COMMISSIONER’S PAY CUT
In one 2013 action, a self-imposed pay cut was terminated.
Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti’s salary rose 11.11 percent from $69,278 to $76,976 in 2013. She began taking her authorized salary after having taken a voluntary 10 percent pay cut during her first two years in office. She did that due to the county’s recession-induced, tax-revenue declines.
Righetti said she would return to the 10 percent pay cut if needed.
The salaries for elected officials, including judges and commissioners, are set by state law. None of them has received any raises since 2008, Tillis said.
VETERANS' SERVICE PAY HIKE
Barry E. Landgraver, who was executive director of the county veterans’ service commission, received three pay increases in 2013.
His salary rose 9.58 percent last January from $65,790 to $72,093. Then in June he got a 17 percent increase to $84,989. Then, during the last week of the year, he received 5 percent more to put his annual salary at $89,253.
Commission service officer Susan E. Skrzynski, received a 51 percent pay increase, going from $46,322 to $70,013 on June 16, when she was promoted to the newly created position of assistant director.
Her pay rose an additional 5.02 percent on Dec. 29 to $73,528 when she received the 5 percent raise the commission gave to all its 13-member staff.
Just last month, Skrzynski’s salary was raised again to $80,176, when the commission made her executive director.
Landgraver took on the role of service officer with a salary of $70,013.
So, if you’re keeping score, 2013 started with Landgraver as executive director at $65,790, but closed with him making $89,253. He was replaced last month by Skrzynski, whose salary is now at $80,176. She started 2013 earning $46,322 in a role now filled by Landgraver for $70,013.
Service commissioner Raymond P. Ornelas said the raises were given because staff here was underpaid compared with counterparts in similar-sized Ohio counties.
“If you don’t pay them, they’re going to move on,” to jobs at other county VSCs or the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Ornelas said.
For that same reason, Ornelas and his four peer commission members earned raises from the county commissioners. Their pay increased 16 percent, from $6,712 to $7,800, effective Dec. 15.
“We tried to make them more commensurate with neighboring communities” in compensation, Ditzler explained. “We found that we were on the low end, and we tried to make them in the middle of the road.”
Members of the commission, which meets weekly and determines the salaries of its staff members, are: Janette C. Brown, Leo H. Connelly Jr., Dean B. McClain, Stephen A. Miner and Ornelas.
“They do a lot outside of the meetings,” Righetti said of the commission members.
Ornelas, who was commission chairman last year, said commission members asked for an increase because he calculated they had been working for less than the minimum wage for the time they spent doing commission work.
Property taxes of a half-mill fund the county’s Veterans’ Service Commission. The 2013 budget was $1,955,879, but the commission actually spent $1,530,617, returning $425,262 to the general fund. The 2014 VSC budget is $1,971,140.
Under state law, the VSC may request, and the county commissioners must provide to the commission annually, up to a half-mill per dollar on the county’s assessed property valuation.
That half-mill now equals about $2 million a year.
Notable pay increases occurred in other departments due to promotions.
Linda Macala’s salary rose 50 percent from $42,735 to $64,380 when she was promoted from assistant director to executive director of the county’s convention and visitors’ bureau. Previous director Phil Moore retired in July at a salary of $66,600.
The CVB is funded from a 5 percent hotel-bed tax.
At the county Board of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services, Brenda Heidinger’s salary rose 48 percent from $37,175 to $55,175 when she was promoted from project manager to interim director upon the resignation of Michael Senchak. When Heidinger shed her interim title this January, her pay grew to $65,000, which was Senchak’s salary.
No full-time replacement was hired for Heidinger in the administrative assistant and project manager position; and only a part-time receptionist was hired to perform some of the administrative assistant duties after Heidinger’s promotion.
The ADAS board is funded by state and federal funds and gets no county general-fund money.
The county commissioners raised the salary of Jeffrey Uroseva, chief building official, by 17 percent from $61,701 to $72,563 due to increased responsibilities after the county absorbed Youngstown’s building inspections. A PERS flip boosted Uroseva’s pay 11 percent to $80,545.
The building inspection department is funded entirely by building-permit fees.
At the county Children Services Board, Jeff Phillips got a 49 percent pay raise from $34,507 to $51,522 in February, when he was promoted from case worker to case-work supervisor. Phillips’ predecessor in the job retired at a $59,779 salary.
CSB is funded by a local real-estate tax levy and state and federal funds.
The county’s newly promoted recycling director, Lou Vega, received three pay increases in 2013.
He first went from $45,198 to $61,800, for a 36 percent increase, when he was promoted from operations administrator to interim director.
He then got an 11 percent increase to $68,907 in a PERS flip; and then his salary rose 5 percent to $72,352 due to his taking on more work after two other positions were vacated, Vega said.
Three other pay increases in that division — for 16, 16 and 24 percent — were due to a PERS flip and increases for taking on more work as the staff downsized, Vega said.
“Between abolishing jobs and not filling positions and redistributing that work to other employees, just within my department alone, we were able to save over $120,000 on the payroll” annually, Vega told the commissioners during a recent meeting.
“I think it’s absolutely fair that, at some point, you’re going to have to offer some extra compensation,” to employees whose workload is increased, Vega said.
But the department also reduced services in 2013.
It cut subsidies for local recycling programs, eliminated funding for curbside leaf pickup for composting, and reduced the number of drop-off sites due to reduced income from landfill dumping fees, which constitute the division’s primary revenue source.
The division’s revenues fell from $2,891,951 in 2011 to $2,674,179 in 2012 and plummeted to $2,142,183 last year. Its 2014 budget is $2.3 million.
The recycling division suffered a major revenue loss in 2012, when the Central Waste Landfill in Smith Township closed, leaving only two active landfills in the county. The Central Waste landfill generated about $677,000 in revenue for the division in its final year of operation.
To balance its 2013 budget, the division eliminated landfill haul-road repair spending and deferred into this year the payment of its $119,310 Oakhill Renaissance Place office rent for 2013.
OTHER PAY HIKES FOR BIG EARNERS
Some single-digit percentage pay raises not listed as PERS flips went to some of the county’s highest-paid employees: A 3 percent raise that boosted the salary of Ronald A. Marian, retiring mental health board director, from $138,169 to $142,315 on Dec. 29; a 2.51 percent raise from $134,611 to $137,987 for Dr. Joseph S. Ohr, forensic pathologist and deputy coroner, on Jan. 27, 2013; and a 3 percent raise from $117,122 to $120,636 on June 2 for Larry A. Duck, DD board superintendent, who resigned in March.
The county auditor’s payroll listing shows 16 instances where employee pay declined.
Notable among them is the demotion of Thomas J. Assion from major at a $70,828 salary to sergeant at a $53,976 salary, for a loss of 23.8 percent.
Sheriff Jerry Greene demoted Assion after an investigation showed Assion arranged the “unarrest” of County Auditor Michael V. Sciortino in a May 26, 2013, traffic stop in Canfield Township, in which Sciortino was suspected of drunken driving.
And at juvenile court, Jane E. Lonardo went from $32,882 to $24,323 when she went from being a bailiff to a secretary.