MARINETTE — Whether or not to give nearly 150 Marinette County employees a cost of living adjustment (COLA) in 2021 was discussed Thursday by the Administrative Committee.

The vote of the six-member panel was split down the middle, 3-3, so the matter will move without a recommendation to the full county board of supervisors later this month. Supervisors John Guarisco, Rick Polzin and Connie Seefeldt voted in favor of not giving a COLA in 2021, while supervisors Don Pazynski, Tricia Grebin and Stan Gruszynski voted against that motion.

County Administrator John Lefebvre said the county has 315 employees who are in the Carlson Dettmann Compensation and Classification Plan (CDCCP), which helps determine how employees are paid and defines their job titles. The motion states that all employees below step 6 in the CDCCP without a step 2 or higher discipline within the proceeding two years advance one step and that there be no COLA to the CDCCP in 2021.

This affects 148 employees, Lefebvre said. Some 167 employees are above step 6 and won’t see a step increase or a COLA. Lefebvre said the employees in the CDCCP come from most departments, including health and human services, forestry, highway and everyone in the courthouse. He said it “pretty much includes everybody but the deputies” who are in a union, along with elected officials.

Lefebvre explained that most county employees are hired below step 6, which is the going market wage for a particular position. He said it could take an employee anywhere from one year to several years to advance to the market wage.

He further explained that a COLA is based on the previous two years cost of living. The maximum COLA the county allows is 2.5%, he said. Based on the last two years, the COLA for 2021 would be about 1.35%, according to Lefebvre. He said that percentage equates to about $250,000.

“I’m recommending in this particular year, even though our policies and procedures state that we will adjust by the cost of living, I’m going to recommend ... that because of the economy and the number of people on unemployment that we forego adjusting our pay plan by the cost of living,” the administrator stated.

Lefebvre added that in the past few months — since the COVID-19 pandemic — the cost of living has either gone down or stayed the same.

“I don’t believe it would look good to the general public,” he said. “I’m not comfortable giving a cost of living increase to our plan. I keep saying ‘our plan.’ We’re just trying to keep our plan current and adjust to the market to attract people to come work here. That’s my recommendation and it’s not going to be popular (with employees).”

Lefebvre explained that many businesses and some municipalities had to lay off employees or place them on furlough. Marinette County did neither and employees, if feasible, were allowed to work from home with about half the workforce taking advantage of that opportunity, which will likely continue through the end of the year.

“I had calls personally with people complaining ‘how can you keep all your employees on, you should be laying them off,’” he said, adding that some departments, like health and human services are actually doing more work during the pandemic.

Pazynski pointed to the importance of the county’s employees and sustaining high morale. Referring to the $250,000 needed for a COLA, he said: “That buys a lot of good will and a lot of morale. You would see that come back in terms of productivity.”

Seefeldt admitted this is a difficult decision. “There’s no guarantees in life — none,” she said. “Yes, if affects the employees. Personally, I was elected by the people in my district. They might be (county) employees and they can call and holler at me I guess. It’s a tough thing to do, but I think there would be more good will from the perception of the public toward our county government than there would be if we did it (the COLA).”

Pazynski said the employees are the most valuable asset the county has and said “let’s not (be) chintzy.”

“I don’t want to see Marinette County start lagging behind and then in a couple of years we have to have another wage study to get caught up again,” Pazysnki said.

Lefebvre explained the plan will be re-evaluated at a certain point. He said COLAs are put in place so when a re-evaluation does take place, there aren’t huge gaps in where the county should be in terms of compensation.

Corporation Counsel Gale Mattison said the county has handled its employees well during the pandemic. “We are one of the few counties that didn’t lay people off, that kept them working,” she said. “We had employees that weren’t considered essential that we put in other positions so they could work. Many people have benefited from working at home. It’s good that they are working from home.”

Mattison explained that many universities pro-rated the salaries of employees. “We basically kept everybody whole and working,” she said.

Polzin, the committee chairman, said he believes Lefebvre’s recommendation is a reasonable solution.

“I think the impact of this (pandemic) is not been felt yet,” he said. “It’s going to be a longer term and focus. Is the labor market wages going up? I think there’s some question about that since we have an over supply of people with so many on unemployment. ... I support taking a cautious look at this. We’re going to have some budget decisions coming forward in the next year. It think our revenues are going to be down.

“We need to look, not only at this specific case, but in a much longer term context. I think for one year, not giving a cost of living increase is a reasonable solution to the current economic environment. It’s a tough decision, but we have a responsibility to the taxpayers.”

Gruszynski said to Lefebvre, “I’m with you as long as you feel in the long run, employees are going to be compensated appropriately. I’m going to trust that’s going to happen.”

Lefebvre repeated that the objective is to keep the wage plan in line with the market. “I’m saying 1.35% in our plan is not really that significant,” he said. “It might be significant to some of our employees, but from our plan standpoint it’s not really significant.”

Grebin asked if a compromise — like 0.9% — could be reached.

Lefebvre said any dollar amount or percentage can be reached, but it could come down to department heads having to make difficult decisions in order to meet their budgets.