Lake County employees could see a significant raise as early as next month.

At Tuesday morning’s regular meeting of the Lake County Commission, Shelli Gust, commission administrative officer, laid out the argument for using funds received through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for wage increases for county employees. The county has approximately $1.67 million of the $2.4 million received to expend by Dec. 31, 2024.

The initial recommendation was a $1.50 per hour raise in July with an additional 50-cent raise in January. During the discussion, that amount was increased to $2 per hour in July with an additional raise of some sort in January. A decision is expected at the July 5 meeting.

In making her presentation, Gust was speaking on behalf of the wage study committee, which also includes Commissioner Dennis Slaughter and Commissioner Aaron Johnson. She emphasized the need to recruit and retain qualified employees.

“You don’t want to fill positions with warm bodies,” Gust told commissioners, and listed the number of open positions the county has at the present time. The jail has had vacancies for more than six months. The Highway Department and 911 Communications also have positions which have been hard to fill.

“There are very few people who have been here more than five years,” she reported. “I would like to see us not offer jobs but offer careers.”

Gust explained that counties are now being advised they can use ARPA funds for county salaries. These funds have to be tracked separately, not put into the general fund, so she recommended paying wages for employees in the Sheriff’s Office, including the jail, and either 911 Communications or the State’s Attorney’s Office out of the ARPA funds.

However, with the additional revenue the federal funding brings to the county, she indicated raises could be given to all county employees. She compared it to seeing 10 years’ growth in the county’s budget.

Gust noted the cost of gas, bread and milk in making her argument. She also quoted salaries offered correctional officers in Brookings County.

“They don’t have to go far to make more,” she stated.

Commissioners asked logistical questions. Were the recommended raises sustainable? What about the 40% cap on county reserves?

They did not receive specific answers to their questions. Instead, they were told they would “have to be aware” of their long-term plan in future years, and were advised the hope is that growth, one of two factors which affect the general fund levy, would “catch up” by the time the ARPA funds had been expended.

“If you don’t do something, if you don’t make that splash, what is the effect of doing nothing?” Gust asked. She then answered her rhetorical question by saying services would suffer.

Commissioners did learn ARPA funds cannot be assigned to future salaries. Assigning funds is a standard practice, allowing counties to both stash away funds in excess of the 40% cap on cash reserves and manage unspent funds at the end of the fiscal year.

In 2021, the county assigned $1 million of CARES Act funding to fiscal year 2022.

Both Sheriff Tim Walburg and April Denholm, director of 911 Communications, supported giving employees a $2 per hour raise in July.

In recent years, the commission has made wage increases for employees a priority. The most recent wage adjustment was adopted in October 2021 for fiscal year 2022.

With that wage scale, clerical positions – such as deputy auditor II, deputy treasurer II and equalization clerk – start at $15.35 per hour; office managers at $15.85 per hour; certified dispatchers and correctional officers at $17.35; veterans service officer and welfare officer at $17.85; heavy equipment operators, level I deputies in county offices, and non-certified sheriff’s deputies at $18.85; certified sheriff’s deputies at $20.35; supervisory positions such as highway foreman and chief deputy at $20.85; and non-elected department heads – such as 911 Communications director, director of equalization and emergency management director – at $21.35.

Gust and County Highway Superintendent Nels Nelson are in a separate category which has a starting salary of $23.35 per hour. For each category, wages at 5 years and 10 years were also set.