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County’s Highway Dept. has issues

By Staff | May 21, 2017

Differences in union and non-union employee insurance within Faribault County’s Highway Department have county engineer Mark Daly concerned for Public Works’ effectiveness, the group’s shorthanded staff and his own future as part of the department.

Daly was on hand at Tuesday’s meeting of the county commissioners to review a “little turmoil” from within the Highway Department, and everything from an inability to fill two open managerial positions to an overwhelming workload through the end of 2017 was pinned mostly on insurance issues.

“Our road foreman retired (and) we had a general foreman on paid administrative leave, so I’ve been running the highway department without my No. 2 and No. 3 guys for about five months, and we decided to advertise for an assistant county engineer position,” Daly told the board Tuesday. “Two qualified candidates declined because of the insurance.”

Citing a “major discrepancy” between insurance costs and benefits for employees and supervisors within the department, Daly estimated that the difference in costs for non-managerial employees and supervisors is roughly $6 per hour.

And with that difference, not to mention benefit packages, steering potential staff replacements away, Daly warned the county commissioners that fulfilling a heavy Public Works agenda over the remainder of the year might not be feasible.

“I don’t know if I’m going to be able to fill the general foreman spot,” he said. “If it’s another seven months, I don’t know if I can make it.”

Daly did acknowledge that a county insurance committee had already been in touch with him about the concerns, and commissioner Tom Loveall, a part of that committee, said the same, confirming that the group has already begun exploring insurance changes that would take effect Jan. 1, 2018.

Implementing changes on the first of the new year, county commissioner Bill Groskreutz noted, would require departments other than Daly’s highway crew to agree to insurance modifications.

And even if changes were approved, they would not solve Daly’s immediate staff holes, Loveall and the engineer agreed.

Option No. 1 for a short-term solution proposed at Tuesday’s meeting was a potential unionization of the highway department’s general foreman position.

Such a move would theoretically enhance the appeal of the position’s benefits.

But, according to county attorney Troy Timmerman, such a move might also be impossible.

“If I’m not mistaken,” Timmerman informed the board, “our labor attorney said that putting that position into the union would violate the union.”

With support from commissioner Tom Warmka, Timmerman agreed to research and confirm that sentiment for a future discussion.

Loveall, meanwhile, continued to “spitball” ideas with the county engineer.

“If that doesn’t work,” the commissioner asked, “what’s the next step?”

Daly responded with a “monetary solution,” suggesting a county-fueled wage increase of $750 per month for each of his department’s four supervising positions, including his own, through the end of the year.

In total, Daly added, the proposed wage increase would cost $18,000, split between the four highway supervisors over a six-month period starting in June.

But the likelihood of that actually coming to fruition, Loveall and Groskreutz agreed, is not very good.

“The question then,” Groskreutz said, “is ‘Why the Highway Department?'”

Later in Tuesday’s meeting, the board joked that Daly’s $18,000 proposal was actually miniscule compared to what external consulting or temp assistance might cost an estimated $100,000 or more over the course of the year to fill the highway department’s shorthanded staff.

But the commissioners agreed that any type of monetary compensation for the department’s vacancies would carry plenty of implications and likely raise questions from other county departments.

“I feel bad for Mark being shorthanded, especially with construction season coming up,” Warmka said. “But let’s let our attorney look at it, put it on the fast track and see what we can do first.”

The other commissioners agreed, with Loveall noting that any short-term solution, whether it be temp assistance, additional Public Works interns or an unlikely monetary “bonus,” would only set the tone for a broader look at the issue as a long-term challenge for the county.

“If you just get a temp in there or whatever, it’s eventually going to bleed,” Loveall said of the insurance concerns at the core of the discussion. “It’s going to be like lighting a fire in your garage to see where the gas leak is.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, the County Board also:

Approved additional support for Winnebago’s maintenance of forfeited tax business to the tune of $12,000.

Winnebago city administrator Chris Ziegler visited the board to review bills from the city’s outlet store work, including construction and demolition involving walls shared by multiple downtown businesses, and the commissioners agreed to up their grand total of contributions to the project to approximately $85,000, more than $73,000 of which was paid in April 2015.

Hosted a closed session discussion pertaining to what Timmerman described as “threatened litigation concerning the Veteran’s Service Office.”