Merit pay supplements town employees

Manager mulling this year’s pay hikes

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

The Selectboard recently approved a 3 percent cost-of-living raise for non-union municipal employees. However, those will not be the only raises for town employees this year.

Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire planned to make his annual decisions this week on merit and longevity pay for non-union municipal employees. The merit raises are added to the cost-of-living increases and are doled out on an individual basis. McGuire typically attempts to finalize the raises by July 1, but makes the salary hikes retroactive when he misses that self-imposed deadline.

McGuire’s deliberation impacts all full-time municipal employees, except for police officers, who belong to a union, and the town clerk, who holds an elected position. The police officers’ annual raises are determined by a contract negotiated with the town, while the town clerk’s salary is set by the Selectboard.

The Selectboard determines the total amount of money set aside for merit raises, but McGuire has the discretion to determine the merit and longevity raises without oversight from the board. He consults with department heads and reviews the performance of each employee.

He said it is important for the town manager to have the ability to manage the salaries without the Selectboard’s guidance.

“Ultimately, I’m responsible for the performance of the town employees,” McGuire said. “This gives me an important tool to reward employees for performance. I need that flexibility without the Selectboard, and the board has been very good about granting that.”

Although the bulk of eligible employees receive a merit/longevity raise, McGuire said the amounts of the raises are typically modest. For instance, last year municipal employees securing merit-based raises received additional pay of either 1 or 2 percent. In previous years, McGuire has awarded merit raises as high as 3 or 4 percent, but he said increases that large are rare.

McGuire works from a budgeted amount. For instance, he had $25,000 last fiscal year, which ended June 30, to dispense for the merit/longevity raises.

McGuire has $45,000 for the current fiscal year, but that number includes $20,000 set aside for police officers’ raises. The town and police officers’ union is currently negotiating a new contract, and the funds for the officers’ raises, which are usually their own line item on the budget, are temporarily included in the money for the merit raises.

The raises are based both on performance and the employee’s experience in a position. It is not an automatic determination with triggers for certain years of service, but an attempt to provide compensation for the value that someone’s experience in a job adds to the position and to the town.

McGuire said the town fell behind other comparable municipalities for offering competitive salaries a few years ago and consequently lost some employees. As an example, he said the staff at the Dorothy Alling Library was starkly underpaid a few years ago.

However, he said the town has caught up. McGuire said he tracks the salaries for various positions at other Vermont towns, and Williston generally falls in line with them now. Similarly, the town sets a cost-of-living raise each year based on a survey of what other municipalities are doing.

“The goal is to remain competitive because if we don’t keep up with the competition than we can’t keep quality employees,” McGuire said. “Right now, we have quality employees.”

A key aspect of managing the municipal salaries is maintaining the town’s pay grades, McGuire said. Positions are located in a pay grade based on 14 criteria, including demands on personal time, supervision exercised and financial accountability.

McGuire also has the task of determining whether a position has changed and should be elevated to a higher, more lucrative pay grade. A pay grade encompasses a span of 48 percent. For instance, the pay grade for the town manager position ranges from $54,267 to $77,979.

Employees have salaries arranged in the pay grade based on multiple factors, most prominently experience.

As an example, McGuire said the town hired zoning administrator D.K. Johnston at a salary above the median pay grade because he arrived with significant experience. By contrast, Scott Gustin, the previous zoning administrator, was hired at a salary a bit below the median because he had less experience.

Of the town’s eight department heads, four were paid last year at a salary above the median in their respective pay grades and four were paid below the median.