Last updated: February 19. 2013 8:16PM - 720 Views

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If Luzerne County Council decides to offer non-union raises based on performance, county Manager Robert Lawton and his supervisors must scramble to formally evaluate about 100 employees from scratch to establish their base work goals.

Lawton told council last week the task was doable and would have to be completed by the end of the year so employees could be measured again a year from now to determine who should get raises.

County Controller Walter Griffith said he's skeptical this feat could be accomplished because a performance evaluation system requires careful planning and procedures.

It's subjective, and there's a risk of nepotism and cronyism. The supervisor's favorites are going to get the raises, and that's the concern I have, Griffith said.

Prior commissioners discussed plans to implement a performance evaluation system for raises in January 2004, but it didn't materialize.

The system was still on the back burner in July 2005, when all three commissioners as part of the now-defunct salary board, agreed to grant 3-percent raises to all non-union staff.

Commissioners said at the time they lumped in everyone because they didn't have the tools to dole out raises based on merit. They said they didn't expect another round of flat increases for everyone in the future because they were going to tackle plans to conduct employee reviews.

Flash forward to January 2008 when, Griffith says, county minutes show the three commissioners and other members of the salary board again voted to grant 3-percent raises to all non-union staff.

Griffith, who was not controller at that time, had urged salary board members to vote against the raises during the January 2008 salary board meeting, saying the county has been borrowing money through bonds to cover deficits.

Griffith said he doesn't oppose pay raises in 2013, but believes they should be flat-dollar amounts for all because percentage increases will equate to higher raises for employees who make the most.

County council is scheduled to decide on raises during Tuesday's budget hearing. Council's approval of the no-tax-hike $122.25 million spending plan is slated for Dec. 11.

Several council members have expressed an interest in merit-based raises.

Councilman Stephen A. Urban said at last week's meeting he may support setting aside money for raises for employees who meet performance goals at the end of 2013.

Urban said he believes some employees have reached their salary caps, but there are many who deserve merit increases based on performance.

Councilman Rick Williams asked Lawton if initial evaluations could be completed in time for follow-up evaluations in 2013.

Lawton said he's confident supervisors could complete the base evaluations before the end of this month. Court officials are already completing their own evaluations of all employees.

Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck referenced the need for a solid evaluation system if merit raises are pursued, citing the human factor that could lead to claims of cronyism.

Lawton said he'd want to brief council before merit-based raises were granted because some employees may be recommended for 3-percent raises, while others could get nothing.

A total 267 non-union employees hired before Jan. 1 would be eligible for raises, Lawton said at last week's council meeting.

Of that, 105 are in court branches, he said.

Court officials have proposed $1,000 across-the-board raises for court employees, saying the cost could be absorbed in the court's $20.26 million portion of the budget without requiring additional funding.

Another 50 are employed in human service branches largely funded by the state, while 13 more work in divisions not directly covered by the general fund operating budget, such as tourism, community development and flood protection, Lawton said.

Council would have to cut something else or dip into a roughly $300,000 contingency fund to cover raises for the remaining 99 workers, officials said.

The cost would depend on the type of raise – flat amount or percentage -- and whether an increase would be provided to all or only those deemed worthy through evaluations, Lawton said.

The average salary of the 267 employees is $43,846, while the median is $41,820, Lawton told council.

Most of the 11 county council members wanted to explore raises because non-union employees haven't received pay increases in several years.

Councilman Stephen J. Urban questioned whether raises are warranted, saying the mean salary is pretty lucrative for the area. He said he would base his decision on the total compensation package, including days off and benefits.

If you go

Luzerne County Council's public budget hearing will be at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the county's Emergency Management Agency building, Water Street, Wilkes-Barre.

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