Grand County is giving dozens of its employees a belated holiday gift of sorts for the new year.

The county council voted 4-0 on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017, to boost the minimum salary of full- and part-time county employees – excluding high school apprentices and interns – to $14 an hour. Council members Greg Halliday, Mary McGann and Rory Paxman were absent from the meeting.

Grand County Council member Jaylyn Hawks said the wage hike will benefit Search and Rescue crew members, in particular, but it extends to senior center and courthouse employees, as well as Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and other departments.

The vote, which was part of a broader council action to approve the county’s budget for 2018, brought an end to what Hawks called a “long and grueling” budget season.

As recently as Dec. 18, 2017, a previous motion to approve the wage hike failed to win a required four-vote majority, and Hawks said that council members had differing approaches to the issue.

“Some wanted to give a countywide COLA (Cost of Living Allowance); some wanted to do both $14 an hour and a COLA; and it might be fair to say that some wanted to do neither until we got all of the information that we needed,” she told the Moab Sun News.

Hawks tied part of the problem in reaching a final vote to the delayed arrival of a contracted survey of county employee salaries and compensation. She said the council originally anticipated that it would receive the survey data earlier in 2017, yet the information only arrived late in the council’s budgeting process.

“It made a really difficult process even more difficult,” she said.

About 50 county employees will benefit from the wage hike, although Hawks said that council members don’t want to ignore other staffers.

“It’s a first step, because we do have this salary and compensation survey data to work through,” she said.

Moving forward, Hawks said the next step is to get a better picture of overall county employee compensation, including benefits such as health insurance and retirement funds, and then raise salaries methodically.

In addition to the wage hike, the county’s amended budget funds a new full-time community and economic development specialist position with benefits, and it approves funding for two new full-time EMS employees with benefits. It also increases funding for the hourly rates of corrections and patrol officer positions within the sheriff’s department – a move that was designed to help the department retain employees, Hawks said.

Another notable provision in the budget sets aside money for an efficiency survey that will examine local government services countywide; the City of Moab is also funding the survey.

Council members question budget information

As the council prepared to vote on the $14 wage, Grand County Council members Curtis Wells and Patrick Trim took issue with the information that Grand County Clerk Diana Carroll – the county’s budget officer – presented to the board.

By Hawks’ estimates, the contracted surveyor created 20 different versions of spreadsheets, and she said that Carroll plugged in numbers from one data set in particular.

Wells said that council members never agreed to implementing any recommendations based on any of the surveyor’s spreadsheets.

“What we agreed to do was bring the people under $14 – full-time and part-time – up to $14, so the frustration now that you’re hearing from me is, you’ve addressed salaries countywide, based on one of the literally probably 20 spreadsheets I’ve seen in the last two months, and why I’m frustrated is, is we didn’t agree to that,” Wells told Carroll during the Dec. 27 meeting. “At no point did the council ever agree that we were going to start from wherever you’re starting and address things additionally on top of them.”

Trim said he did not remember the council saying, “Go ahead and put those numbers in the budget.”

But Carroll said she believed that she and the council were on the same page, using the information that she presented to the council.

“I pointed out over and over again that this is the one that I’ve been using,” she said.

In the minutes leading up to the council’s vote, Wells said that county officials needed to make “damn sure” that the Dec. 27 amendments made their way into the budget, prompting an equally colorful response from Carroll.

“If you damn sure tell me what to do, I’ll do it,” she said.

Wells said he didn’t know how council members could have been any more clear about their intentions, while Trim suggested that the motion should be clear in writing.

Carroll, in response, gave the council an ultimatum.

“No – you’re going to be clear in your motion before we leave this room,” she said.

Grand County Council member Evan Clapper suggested that the council could have approved the budget as is, without the salary adjustments, drawing objections from Trim.

“I probably would have been fine with that … two months ago,” Trim said. “I think that now that we’ve made a commitment, and it’s on record, and we’ve said that people that are going to be up to $14 an hour need to be at $14, I’m not comfortable doing that, at this point.”

Hawks said she believes that the back-and-forth exchange between council members and Carroll was a sign of the current council’s heightened role in the budgeting process.

“In past years, there has not been this level of engagement on the county council with the budget officer,” Hawks said. “I believe that’s part of the stress.”

The budget officer was previously responsible for much of the work, she said.

“It’s hard, I think, to turn that around,” Hawks said. “Going forward, the county council and the budget officer need to be more collaborative.”

It’s a first step, because we do have this salary and compensation survey data to work through.

$14 hourly wage to benefit about 50 staffers