FARGO — While it’s certainly up in the air, the Cass County Commission voted for a possible 8.5% increase in the cost of living for the county’s nearly 500 workers for next year.
The Board of Directors on Monday, June 6 voted unanimously to accept the proposed increase for county budget development this summer.
It would be the biggest increase in COLA in at least the past 30 years, with the closest figure being 5.1% last year, according to a table presented to the commissioners. Most COLAs were between 2% and 3% in those years.
Late last month, county department heads recommended the increase. After “thoughtful discussion,” County Administrator Robert Wilson said he made the decision to continue using the long-standing practice of adopting a recommendation equal to the Consumer Price Index from April to April for cities in the Upper Midwest with a population of 500,000 or less.
Wilson said department heads also pointed to the process of using the Consumer Price Index for almost 20 years, arguing the increase was necessary to stay competitive in the “extremely tight labor market”. . Despite approving additional wage increases in 2021 to stay competitive in the local job market, without the increase the county would “just maintain” its position, he said.
County Commissioner Chad Peterson said he realized the struggles with inflation, but said: ‘It seems the only people who are cured are government officials.’
He said to cover the increase, it could mean increasing the county levy by 3 mills, a substantial increase as one mill currently brings in about $1 million in property taxes.
The county is spending $24.2 million in gross salaries this year, up 14% from last year due to pay increments, the 5.1% increase in COLA, and salary adjustments. pay scale made in order to become more competitive after conducting a study on local wages.
County Board Chairman Rick Steen made a comparison to the Fargodome board, on which he sits. Last week, he said, they agreed to a 3.5% raise for his employees. He said he thought the county’s proposed increase was “difficult for me to visualize.”
Commissioner Mary Scherling asked about possible bonuses for county employees instead of the larger COLA increase when the discussion turned to whether the consumer price index could drop .
State’s Attorney Birch Burdick said he could research the matter, but said salary surveys conducted approximately every three years by the county showed the county “is still in delay”.
Steen suggested they run the larger 8.5% increase in the budgeting process to see where they end up.
With the county installing a new accounting system, Wilson said, they may need a decision sooner than in previous years.
He also said they could check the Consumer Price Index numbers for May or June to see if there were any changes.
When the consumer price index was negative, Wilson and Burdick said, they gave no COLA increase.
Total county wages fell 30%, or about $8.5 million, in 2019 when the state government took over county social service departments as they moved to a regional system and to help control property taxes.
Prior to last year’s big increase, the county’s 2021 wage increase was 1.5% without COLA increases and just two new hires