As the county commissioners sat down with members of the county council Tuesday to begin hashing out a spending plan for 2023, conversations drifted first to a topic about which the two entities clashed two years ago.
The commissioners have long told the county council of the need to hire someone to oversee human resources-related issues, first bringing up the idea of hiring a full-time HR person during the budget sessions in 2020.
Under the current system, HR responsibilities are not funneled to one office, instead, the auditors office doing some — things like payroll, the filling out of appropriate tax forms, and onboarding employees — while the commissioners themselves handle complaints from employees, usually sending those to county attorney Andrew Porter even though his contract specifically excludes such inquiries.
“It’s just easier to handle those sometimes on the front end than on the back end with a tort claim,” he said to the group as they met at the Community Corrections building downtown on the second full day of budget hearings.
The commissioners’ request is largely the same as it was two years ago, the hiring of an HR person with an annual salary of $35,000 per year.
The structure, however, is different.
This HR person would make up the county’s “Legal Department,” Porter explained to the county, and would report directly to him.
Doing so would “streamline” HR-related tasks, Porter said, funneling them all — everything from payroll to benefit coordination, the termination of employees, complaints of harassment, new hires and all handbook requirements, among other duties — to the Legal Department, which would then look to him, when necessary, for further legal guidance.
The HR employee, commission president Kellie Streeter explained, would “handle the very diverse issues faced by a typical Human Resources department” and would allow (Porter) to focus his efforts elsewhere.
“We must standardize the process of what we do,” Streeter said. “Right now, we just willy nilly it, if you want to know the truth.
“We can’t even get drug testing off the ground because we don’t have the personnel to do it,” she said.
Too, Streeter said the county would likely save upwards of $10,000 per year by ending the duplication of services, specifically in the termination of contracts like one with a third-party law firm, which handles the development and upkeep of the county’s employee handbook.
Such tasks, she said, would either be taken on by the HR employee or by Porter — either way, handled by the new Legal Department.
“And if we don’t like it, we can change it in years forward,” she said.
Porter expressed his support for the move, saying that with in excess now of 300 employees, the county simply must do better.
Not having a designated place for employees to go to discuss such issues — private issues — is legal trouble waiting to happen, he suggested.
“There is no private office to report private information; it’s problematic,” he said. “So it’s an area we need to address, one we need to modernize.”
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Councilman Bob Lechner, however, said he was opposed to the idea, believing it will create even more problems.
“I love 90% of this,” he said. “But from a management position, I see flaws.”
With some duties, like payroll, staying with the auditors office — and others shifting to the newly-formed Legal Department — Lechner envisioned a potentially cumbersome situation, one wherein there could be confusion as to who does what, and who reports to whom.
“This will create overlap. Somebody will have two things to do at the same time, and it will be perceived by county employees as an auditor function, but someone wearing two hats,” he said. “It’s not ideal. It’s not seamless; in fact, I think you’ll see a lot of jagged seams. I think we’ll see less credibility and more issues.
“I’ve never seen it done like we’re talking about here,” he said, pounding his fingers on the stack of white papers that made up the commissioners’ proposal.
Too, he said $35,000 is simply not enough.
“That’s not going to happen. We’ve heard that all day,” he said, referencing the steady stream of department heads commiserating about how difficult it is to find people to work when pay is so low.
Instead, Lechner offered a counter proposal, specifically hiring Porter’s firm, Feavel & Porter, 36 N. Fifth St., for the $35,000 to handle the more tedious and law-specific HR requests.
“We pay you. You provide the services,” he said. “We outsource it to you guys.”
Porter didn’t immediately object, but he did indicate he thought Lechner was potentially overcomplicating the situation; he thought it perfectly feasible that the new Legal Department/HR person would work well with the auditors office in juggling responsibilities from both, thereby accomplishing the task of streamlining the process for employees and potentially alleviating responsibilities from both offices, too.
There is already much, healthy communication between the two offices now, Porter said.
“I never envisioned separate rooms, with no communication,” Porter said.
Before discussions rather abruptly ended — to make way for the council’s regular business meeting Tuesday evening — Streeter again made her plea for help.
There will be a new county auditor in 2023, following this year’s Mid-Term Election, so what better time to implement change?
“We just need to effectively, professionally and correctly (handle HR issues),” she told the council.
“And we thought this a good time to address it.”
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