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Board prodded on pay change

By Staff | Dec 5, 2014

Sheriff Matt Lunde and dispatcher Joni Swearson joined the Pierce County Board of Commissioners regular meeting Tuesday to discuss concerns on pro-rating of vacation, sick and holiday benefits.

Effective Nov. 1 with an updated county employee handbook, the dispatchers began receiving 7.25 hours worth of pay for eight hours of vacation, sick and holiday benefits. The dispatchers typically work 36 hours each week on 12-hour shifts.

“What savings is it with three-quarters of an hour,” Lunde said. “We’re wondering how the formula came up.”

District 5 Commissioner Dave Migler said a survey was conducted and “most of the counties do (pro-rating). You have to earn it to get it.”

Auditor Karin Fursather stated that 20 of the 53 county auditors responded to a question of whether non-40-hour employees benefits are pro-rated. Of the the 20 that responded, all 20 said their counties pro-rate.

Swearson, who joined as a dispatcher about six months ago, said dispatchers did not find out about the change until they were asked to sign the handbook 10 days after it went into effect.

“We were changed from full-time to part-time status with no warning and were told after the fact with absolutely no consideration for how this affects us,” Swearson read from a prepared statement. “The betrayal I felt is bone deep and I don’t think there is any recovering from it. That because we work 36 hours we are not as important or are somehow less valued than employees who work 40 hours a week. We are the ones spending our nights, our weekends, our holidays, away from our family. It is a 24-hour a day operation at the law enforcement center, not an 8 hour day job.”

Swearson stated she believes the change will make it more difficult for the LEC to retain dispatchers.

“Would you want someone who has been on the job for four days trying to provide lifesaving instructions for you, for your wife, for your children?” she said. “It also becomes an officer safety issue when you have dispatchers who are not experienced.”

Swearson said dispatchers are only compensated for eight hours for holidays despite having 12-hour shifts.

“I really wish this was something we all discussed,” Lunde said. “The dispatchers are wondering if they’re valued.”

Darren Heidbreder, chief of security at Heart of American Correctional and Treatment Center, said 12-hour shifts are becoming the norm in law enforcement.

“You guys pulled their benefits,” Heidbreder told the commissioners. “That’s a negative impact that really caused a lot of strife. It put a major black cloud on the environment.”

The board said it would consider making the dispatchers full-time employees.

Lynnette Vollmer, county administrative assistant and human resources assistant, also expressed displeasure with the board. Vollmer said changes suggested by employees were not made to the handbook, including mention of employee evaluations being considered in raising wages.

“It took a lot for me to earn their trust and impress that you guys valued their work and evaluations would be considered,” Vollmer said. “Right now, I feel I have lied to all the county employees because there was no follow through.”

Migler stated that the county is expected to receive training on how to conduct employee evaluations by a consulting firm doing the county’s salary study.

“We weren’t doing (evaluations) justice, so we didn’t do it this year,” Migler said.

Previous evaluations have come back perfect, raising concerns that department supervisors were not doing evaluations properly.

Migler said Vollmer told the board she would bring feedback from the employees, but that did not happen. Johnston suggested sticking with the new handbook, finding that pro-rating was fair to all the county employees.

Community service update

Yvonne Hagen, Heart of America Community Service Program coordinator, presented a report based on the first 11 months of 2014.

The program is shared by Pierce, McHenry and Bottineau Counties, though the three entities are yet to sign a joint-powers agreement to equally share costs.

Hagen’s report showed that 37 Pierce County clients completed 1,315 hours this year with 13 clients currently doing 565 hours. In McHenry County, 35 clients completed 1,150 hours with 20 clients currently doing 710 hours. In Bottineau Count, 34 clients completed 917 hours with 19 clients currently doing 630 hours.

Hagen calculates the value of the program by savings in prisoner boarding fees and value of the free labor from court-ordered hours.

For example, Pierce County’s 1,880 hours of community service coverts to 235 days in jail, as eight hours of service equals one day in jail, according to the report.

The 235 days at $65 a day (boarding fees) comes to $15,275 the county saved in not boarding. The work is valued at $8 per hour, so the county received $15,040 worth of free labor.

Hagen said Rolette County is benefitting from the program, as well. Fees are received from those cases. She plans to speak with the Rolette commissioners about officially joining the program.

District 2 Commissioner Mike Christenson commended Hagen for her work and the detailed report.

Hagen shared a couple success stories of community service workers going beyond the call. She also mentioned new entities in the program, including Pleasant Lake Township, Rugby Gun Club, Growing Place, City of Antler and Willow City.

Hagen expressed frustration with her current monthly salary. She compared her 32-hour salary with four-fifths benefits to the salary of her 40-hour-a-week predecessor in 2011, 2012 and 2013. She stated she has completed five times the cases done in the first six months of 2014 compared to the first six months of 2013.

“I’m bothered by the salary cut and benefit cut,” Hagen said. “I was told it’d be full-time benefits and there was no mention of pro-rating.”

If Hagen was approved to work 40 hours, she would be about $100 off the salary of the previous director.

Chairman and District 4 Commissioner Duane Johnston said he would like to meet with the judge and representatives of the other three counties before making any changes to pay.

Hagen stated that she would like the program’s advisory board composed of the judges, state’s attorneys and clerks of court, “the people who really know if you’re doing your job.”

Later in the meeting, Migler said: “The whole thing we want to do in the county is be fair to all employees.”

Christenson said: “So we’re supporting two groups (taxpayers and 40-hour employees) vs. one (dispatchers).”

Jail report

Mike Graner, administrator at Heart of America Correctional and Treatment Center, gave his monthly report. Because the jail is county operated, Graner said he does not expect the county to receive anymore bills for prisoner boarding fees.

Graner said nothing out of the ordinary was in the October bills, but some food and supply costs have risen with an increased daily population. The average population in October was 119 compared to 128 in November.

Graner said two new tasers were purchased and Chief of Security Darren Heidbreder is researching other less lethal riot-control weapons.

Heidbreder recommended the commissioners come by HACTC for a couple hours to receive a tour of the facilities. He added that there have been no major injuries to officers this year.

“I’m proud of that and it will be one of our main focuses in the future,” Heidbreder said.

Graner said every officer capable of having basic training done has completed the program and two more trainings will be finished in January.

The board agreed with Graner’s request to surrender HACTC’s license for the treatment center. HACTC has not performed treatment since late summer 2013 when the state’s audit followed to escape incidents.

“We’d have no way to meet deficiency issues because no one is there now,” Graner said. The treatment center is being used to house female inmates.

Graner also requested a review of employee policy manuals. The commissioners will make a change to reflect correctional officers being allowed to smoke in their cars on the property.

Graner also requested that the evaluations done by HACTC administration have bearing on future merit raises for officers. Graner also explained the irregular work hours and 12-hour shifts of correctional officers and did not want to see pro-rating of benefits if an officer works just two shifts one week and four the next week.

Graner and Heidbreder explained that the amount of training has quadrupled with online classes. The staff took 120 hours worth of training last month. Every three years, each officer is required to complete 40 hours of continued education.

Appointments approved

District 4 Commissioner Duane Johnston was reappointed chairman of the board following a nomination by District 5 Commissioner Dave Migler. Migler was appointed vice chairman following a nomination from District 2 Commissioner Mike Christenson.

New commissioner Mike Brossart (District 1) was appointed to the Law Enforcement Center advisory board. He was nominated by Migler.

The board approved reappointment of Bill Deck to the Pierce County Water Resource Board.

Other meeting news

The board approved November’s minutes, bills, financial statement and treasurer’s checks ($15,819). A transfer of $100,000 from the county poor fund to the social services fund was approved. A transfer of $35,847 from the general fund to the health insurance fund was approved.

Abatements were approved for Bernie Howard, Donald and Marjorie Olson and Jerome Held.

Dues of $6,512 and $1,500 were approved for the North Dakota Association of Counties and the North Dakota Commissioners Association, respectively.

Payment of $7,000 was approved from the general fund to the library elevator project.

A motion was approved authorizing the chairman, auditor and state’s attorney to sign the maintenance certification, which states all federal aid highway projects are being maintained, according to North Dakota Department of Transportation “Construction and Maintenance Agreement.”

Beer and liquor license renewals were approved for the Rugby Eagles Club, Rugby Golf Club and Larry’s Bar in Selz.

A motion was approved to authorize the chairman and auditor to sign a county deed for property at Round Lake.

The board reviewed applications for the social services director position and expected to conduct interviews Friday. The county currently shares director Mary Hermanson with McHenry County, but Pierce will soon have its own director.

Discussion on a bill received from Brad’s Towing was tabled until further review from State’s Attorney Galen Mack.

Mack also requested the commissioners look closer at traffic patterns before changing signs.

Dennis Romfo, of Reno Valley Township, asked for clarification about section lines and township right of way.

Auditor Karen Fursather stated the law enforcement center is in the red and money will need to be transferred from the general fund to help with December payroll.

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