Houston County commissioners split last week on whether or not to approve a series of cost of living adjustments (COLAs) for 2014. The vote covered all elected county positions, including themselves.

The COLAs mirror pay increases in Houston County's union contracts, giving elected officials a 1 percent pay hike on Jan.1, and another 1.5 percent on July 1, 2014.

Commissioner Judy Storlie made a motion to grant the COLAs, then withdrew it when Commissioner Dana Kjome asked, "Would this be for our salaries too?"

"I'm perfectly fine with commissioners staying where they are at," Storlie said at that point.

"There's something about giving myself a raise that doesn't seem right," Commissioner Steve Schuldt stated. The board appeared ready to separate themselves from the rest of the list of elected officials at that time.

Chairman Justin Zmyewski then asked, "If we can hold the line, shouldn't we hold them to the line as well?"

"OK, then," Storlie replied, "I say that we go forward on how it (the proposed COLA) reads...."

Based on the above COLA, Storlie's motion was to increase the auditor's pay to $66,419 for 2014. The treasurer would receive $54,340, while the county attorney would increase to $91,017. The county recorder's salary would be $60,627. The sheriff would receive $86,371. Each county commissioner would receive a salary of $19,016. Schuldt seconded.

The motion passed 3-2, with Zmyewski and Kjome voting no. "I can't vote for lower taxes and then give out raises," the former said.

"Cost of living adjustments is what we're giving," Storlie stated. "I think that everybody deserves the cost of living raise."

The last time the Houston County board voted to raise their salaries was December of 2007, when the amount was set at $18,687 (effective 2008). Per diems for commissioners were raised in 2007, and eligibility requirements for those were updated in 2010. The latter vote expanded per diems to cover any county business, where before only an "official committee list" of meetings were covered. There is a maximum of one per diem per day allowed with none paid for Tuesday, since that is the scheduled board meeting day. The rate is $40 for in-county, $65 for out-of-county meetings.

Earlier, Human Resources director Tess Kruger asked the board to consider a series of raises for 13 non-represented (non-union) employees, Three were eligible for the COLA plus a "step" increase, two would receive the COLA plus a discretionary raise, and eight (who are already at the maximum wage for their positions as defined by the wage grid) would just get the COLA. One of the employees would only receive the COLA for one week, since she has already tendered her resignation as of Jan. 8.

"I think this would prevent salary compression as compared to those who are represented by unions," Kruger said. "It would also keep them somewhat at par with represented persons."

Storlie made a motion to approve the salary increases. Seconded by Schuldt, they were approved by a 4-1 vote. Zmyewski cast the dissenting ballot.

"I voted against the union raises and the tax increase, so I've got to be true to my word," he said. "It's no reflection on anybody."

"I think they're modest (raises)," Schuldt said. "I don't believe that we're being overly generous doing this."

Kruger said that the raises "keep us competitive," even though "we certainly are not a county at the top of the market..."

There were several other personnel-related votes.

The first was to accept the resignation of social worker Karen Sanness, effective Jan. 3. A related motion approved initiating a hiring search for a replacement, while a third OK'd hiring a 67-day interim employee to fill the position while the search progresses.

The board also voted to change network technician Jeremy Shaver's employment status from probationary to regular upon completion of 2080 hours of service.

Commissioners approved hiring Craig Welsh as a 67-day employee in building maintenance. An extended leave has left the department short-handed, Kruger said.

Finally, another vote set up a screening committee to review a list of applicants for an opening on the planning commission. The group would then recommend finalists to the county board.

Zmyewski and Storlie disagreed on who should make up the panel. The chairman asked that Kjome, himself, and Environmental Services director Rick Frank go over the applications, while Storlie argued that two additional members of the planning commission should also participate. The vote went 4-1 in favor of Zmyewski's motion with Storlie dissenting. By consensus, Kruger was also asked to attend, even though her name was not mentioned in the motion.

"I really feel the planning commission has so much knowledge on what the person should have when they come on, that we should include them," Storlie said. "We want to include the whole team. I'm looking at this from the team-player aspect.

"I don't feel that it is necessary to have planning commission members on the committee..." Zmyewski countered, "It would be a little like having the fox guarding the hen house... I'd like to see the board start to take leadership, start to make these decisions."