Eau Claire County Courthouse

Eau Claire County leaders discussed potential options to reduce spending on employees as a way to lessen the financial impact of coronavirus during its COVID-19 task force meeting Wednesday afternoon.

No final decisions were made regarding the county’s 549 full-time employees, but task force members considered furloughs, no salary increases and holding vacant positions open.

County Administrator Kathryn Schauf said the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 transmission and the number of positive cases for the rest of the year presents the largest challenge, since no one knows what the future may hold.

She noted that county revenue likely will not return to pre-coronavirus levels until 2023, so the decisions will be necessary for the county’s long-term financial health.

“Even though it sounds horrendous, it’s probably the most accurate (projection),” Schauf said.

County Finance Director Norb Kirk said the county is anticipating around $1.8 million in losses for 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. That estimate is a result of projections from all county departments regarding realistic impacts on their budgets this year.

Kirk noted that number was a rough estimate and that 2020 financial projections include “huge variance” ranging from a potential surplus of about $800,000 to losing $4.4 million.

Options to decrease spending include some workers taking “furlough Fridays,” meaning employees would not be paid for any work done Friday and only receive money for four workdays of a given week. Another consideration is floating furloughs, where employees must take a minimum number of unpaid days off per year. Kirk said savings estimates if workers took three days of unpaid furlough would equal around $350,000.

Supervisor Judy Gatlin, who is not a member of the task force but attended the meeting, expressed favor toward requiring a certain number of furlough days per year, since workers will have more ability to decide what dates they take off.

Nick Smiar, County Board chair and task force member, agreed and said floating furloughs would be “a way of spreading the pain” across all departments. Supervisor Stella Pagonis, a task force member, concurred, as long as furloughs are taken by employees across all management levels, she said.

Supervisor Kim Cronk, who is not a member of the task force but attended the meeting, suggested high-level employees take pay cuts first, since that action could be reassuring to frontline workers. Smiar agreed and said high-ranking employees taking pay cuts could help morale if workers know their supervisors are going through similar challenges.

The task force also discussed not applying pay increases to workers who qualify for such raises in July. Kirk said if no step increase occurred in July, savings would be around $325,000.

Schauf said the key to managing the financial difficulties involves “asking people to do less with less” instead of requiring employees to work more with fewer resources. Some county services will be reduced in the near term, and she said the task force needs to determine in what areas the county can afford to have delays that won’t be detrimental to its long-term health.

“Where is an increased wait time acceptable?” Schauf said.

Schauf will discuss the topic at a department head meeting today and noted that the difficult decisions will have ripple effects in the county.

“These are going to be painful conversations,” Schauf said.

Task force members said the decision affecting income should apply to all the workers that it can, perhaps excluding critical employees like correctional officers and Meals on Wheels kitchen staff.

“It’s going to have to be across the board,” Schauf said.

Another way to lower costs is when county employees retire, their former positions will be held vacant. If they can’t be kept vacant, the county will recruit internally. The county might also have employees provide work for multiple departments.

Since the pandemic arrived in full force in mid-March, Schauf said the county has only filled the vacancy of one correctional officer. All other positions have been left open which “does create some pressure” on current employees, Schauf said.

The task force will also consider revoking recent salary and per diem increases for supervisors. Smiar said rolling back supervisors’ pay increases could send a significant message to employees that everyone is affected, even if the actual dollar impact on supervisors is relatively small.

The topic will be discussed further during the task force’s next meeting, which is scheduled for June 24.