Raises, Bonuses at City, County Reflect Strong Financial Position

By Eric Timmons

Most non-union city of La Crosse employees will receive raises of 5.5% in 2021, according to the mayor, while leaders at La Crosse County are preparing to give employees bonuses and raises totaling $1.6 million in the coming weeks.

At the city, non-union workers went without a raise this year. As a result, the city approved two step increases of 2.75% in 2021 for those employees.

“In general, if they meet performance expectations, non-represented city employees will be eligible for two step increases in 2021; each step increase is about 2.75%,” a statement from Mayor Tim Kabat said. “The first would happen on January 1, and this is for those eligible for an increase in 2020 because we had to forgo step increases as part of the economic recession plan and cuts we had to make mid-year. The second step increase would occur on July 1, 2021.”

In order to receive the raises, employees must obtain a satisfactory or better evaluation, according to Valerie Fenske, the city’s director of finance and human resources. 

Union employees at the city, which includes workers in the police, fire, and municipal transit departments, should also receive raises in 2021. The common council is expected to vote next week on a 3% raise for the police department and a 2.5% raise for transit workers. Both union agreements are almost certain to be approved. Employees at the fire department already have a contract in place that will pay them a 3% raise in 2021.

At La Crosse County, the county board’s executive committee will vote on Wednesday on a $500 bonus for most employees as a recognition of their extraordinary efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. The proposal will then move to the full county board for approval.

The six highest paid county employees and five elected department heads will not receive the bonus, which will be pro-rated for part-time employees. The total cost of paying the $500 to around 1,300 county employees is about $590,000, according to county officials. Additionally, most county employees will receive a raise of 1.75% in January at a cost to the county of just over $1 million.

Projected revenue to county departments have exceeded expectations for 2020 in several cases and a majority of those departments are expected to underspend their budgets for this year. Additionally, the county has “maximized federal CARES funding,” county officials reported. The CARES Act is the huge COVID-19 relief bill passed by Congress earlier this year, which provided substantial funds to aid the county’s health department and assist with homelessness prevention and small business assistance programs through the city and county.

Combined, the raises at the city and county reflect the relatively strong financial position of both entities heading into 2021, despite the impact of the pandemic on the local economy. 

According to county administrator Steve O’Malley, the county finished the 2019 fiscal year in its strongest financial position of the past 17 years, allowing it to build up unassigned general fund reserves of $23.5 million. 

The county’s policy is to maintain general fund reserves that match between 25% and 50% of general fund spending. In 2019, that percentage crept as high as 67%, according to O’Malley, and the county’s general fund reserves are expected to remain at about $23 million at the end of this year. In part, the reserves are used to provide cash flow for the county, which often must wait to be reimbursed by the state or federal government for money it spends.

For 2021, the county plans to spend down $2.9 million of its reserves on multiple capital projects and other expenses, including $1.5 million toward constructing the $4.2 million St. Joseph’s Highway shop (the remaining $2.7 million will be borrowed) to consolidate two smaller shops into one, O’Malley said.

Back at the city, the operating budget is expected to increase slightly in 2021 to $68.8 million, compared to $68.7 million this year. Mayor Kabat noted at the time the budget was announced that city spending was down since he took office in 2013, when the city spent about $3 million more, in addition to having more staff and a higher property tax rate. 

Top image credit: La Crosse City Hall/Wisconsin Historical Society. Email questions or story ideas to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com.

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