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Kercheval is right about county pay system flaws

December 21, 2007

Imagine that you are the parent of a teenage son who has an 11 p.m. curfew.

The youth regularly violates that curfew, coming home at midnight or later. To fix the situation, do you: Restrict the boy's privileges until he starts to follow your rules, or scrap the idea of a curfew altogether?

As any parent knows, rules that aren't enforced are worthless. But scrapping the system because your child won't comply with it is only likely to make things worse.

The employees of Washington County government aren't children, but according to a committee studying their pay system, too many of their supervisors are like lax parents.

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According to Gary Rohrer, who chaired a committee charged with recommending changes to the pay system, "The employee review process has lost credibility. Excellence has become the standard rating."

In such a scenario, county employees are like the residents of humorist Garrison Keillor's mythical Lake Woebegone, "where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."

In real life, there is no such thing. Some children ? and some employees ? are above average and some are not. And the goal of any personnel system should be to encourage better performance by all employees.

Rohrer's committee recommended the following solutions:

· Every employee will get an annual 3.5 percent raise, in addition to a cost-of-living increase.

· The county commissioners can decide to change that amount or decline to offer the cost-of-living increase.

· Managers can withhold step increases from employees who receive low scores on performance evaluations.

· Outstanding performance will be rewarded with one-time bonuses.

Here is our question: If county supervisors are reluctant to give employees anything but an "excellent" rating now, will they be willing to withhold step raises for less-than-favorable performance in the future?

We agree with Commissioner James Kercheval, who voted against the new system. Kercheval said the "problem is not the (current) system, but how management works within it."

What county managers ought to be doing is sitting down with employees, setting goals for the next year based on the department's workload and discussing measurable strengths and weaknesses.

This isn't an easy process, in part because it must be done in addition to everything else the manager must do. And if there is no penalty for not doing it correctly, managers might conclude the process isn't worth the time.

If a private company wants to work this way, that's none of the public's business.

But this is a taxpayer-funded workforce. Those who pay the bills have the right to expect these three things:

· That the biggest raises go to the best employees.

· That the department heads are setting goals and seeing that they're accomplished, and

· That the county's director of human resources is overseeing the entire process.

We recommend that the commissioners rethink this idea and strongly consider that Commissioner Kercheval might be correct about what's broken and what isn't.

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