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5/26/2006
News Journal Editorial - NCCo pay system needs review, adjustments

News Journal Editorial
OUR VIEW
NCCo pay system needs review, adjustments

05/26/2006

New Castle County Councilman Robert Weiner may have come at the issue a little ham-fisted, but his effort to study the outrageously generous pay plan for county employees is on the mark.

County employees, especially those in their first 10 years, are for all intents and purposes guaranteed 8 percent annual raises. Between 3 percent and 3.2 percent of that is the current negotiated cost-of- living increase in the various county contracts.

Many employees in the private sector are lucky to get 3 percent as an annual performance raise -- not a cost-of-living adjustment.

To reward performance, county union contracts call for an annual 5 percent salary hike for the first 10 years on the job. After that, increases are based on merit system step increases and contract negotiations. That arrangement is backwards.

(Union officials will say that not everyone on the payroll receives a 5 percent merit raise because not everyone receives a satisfactory performance evaluation. But in the real world of county government, virtually everyone does get the merit raise.)

The system should be turned around

New county employees should not be given locked-in pay raises before they've proved themselves capable.

Early raises should be based on performance and merit, not contract dictates. Senior employees of more than 10 years have better standing for automatic pay increases than do junior colleagues.

Under union pressure, Councilman Weiner withdrew proposals urging that the county pay system be restructured and a reduction of merit raises be spread over a longer period. But Councilman Weiner's idea has more council support than meets the eye. Some members who are union connected also believe the pay system is too liberal, but don't dare say so in public.

County Executive Chris Coons has rightly promised he would support benchmarking, or comprehensive review, of the pay system by comparing New Castle County with similar regional governments. That would be a start. It's a good bet the review won't turn up anything as generous as 8 percent annual raises in nearby counties.

Liberal raises and benefits were a mark of many government jobs 30 years ago, when starting salaries were barely poverty level. Poor wages often resulted in poor performance or, worse, no- show jobs.

But starting salaries in government generally have improved greatly, and merit systems have made filling jobs more competitive. There remains little reason for overblown raises or bonuses.

As Mr. Weiner points out, county government also offers liberal vacations, health benefits and compensatory time to rival private business.

Starting salaries offer good future earnings

Under the current salary system, clerks starting at $35,000 a year can be at $60,000 in a relatively short time, simply by showing up and getting a satisfactory performance evaluation. More merit should be required to advance at that speed.

Councilman Weiner points out that New Castle County's payroll amounts to nearly 75 percent of the operating budget. That compares with 30 percent to 40 percent in similar counties. That is an unacceptable share of taxpayer money to run a relatively small county government.

Mr. Coons had little trouble getting a $1.33-a-month tax increase passed by County County this week. It's the first property tax increase in 10 years. He also spent little political capital increasing county sewer rates by 2.5 percent.

Government costs continue to escalate

But continuously rising operating costs, for everything from electricity and fuel to salaries and pensions, are likely to force a heftier tax hike next year. Failure to be in the bond market for two years -- and instead using surplus cash for capital improvements -- will further deplete income and contingency funds.

Raising the property tax by $16 this year was the maximum allowed under the current 5 percent tax cap implemented by County Council. That cap is going to have to be lifted considerably.

Year-long monitoring of ongoing expenses by council and the administration is commendable, and could produce some savings.

Meanwhile, we will look forward to Mr. Coons' overdue review of the salary system soon.

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