Lake County employees were clearly the winners on Tuesday as Lake County commissioners worked to craft the county's budget for fiscal year 2021. In addition to approving raises and wage adjustments, commissioners approved a number of policy changes which improve benefits for employees.

"I think these are great changes," said Shelli Gust, commission administrative officer, indicating they will help the county to recruit and retain employees.

Paula Barrick, who will complete Auditor Bobbi Janke's term of office, introduced the budget discussion by providing the projected cost of each recommendation introduced by the wage and benefit committee earlier this month. A 3% raise was written into budget requests received from each department and not calculated separately.

Making wage adjustments for 15 employees on top of the 3% raise will cost the county $17,908. Providing a 25-cent increase to differential pay for overnight and holiday hours as well as for on-call hours will cost the county $5,686. This increase will apply only to the sheriff's office, including the jail and 24/7 program, and to 911 communications.

Providing a reimbursement of $200 per month to full-time employees who are not on the county's insurance plan would affect eight employees and cost $21,917. These employees would also be eligible to receive up to $750 in medical reimbursement after paying $750 toward their health insurance deductible.

"We may not know who will need to use this," Gust said, explaining this benefit would affect the county's budget but the cost cannot be projected.

In addition to approving these recommendations, the commissioners approved a number of other recommendations which do not have an impact on the budget.

First-year employees will now have 80 hours of sick leave rather than 40 hours. Commissioner Dennis Slaughter said this was important "in light of the COVID situation."

Employees can now donate up to 40 hours of accrued sick leave to another employee who is facing a serious illness or similar emergency circumstance. Previously, employees could only donate vacation time for which they could receive a payout upon leaving county employment.

Probationary employees can now use up to two days of vacation time during their first six months of employment. Gust clarified that they can only use time which has accrued, so they cannot take vacation time immediately after being hired.

Employees can also accrue more vacation hours than previously, although the payout caps were not changed. During the first year of employment, employees can now accrue 45 hours. For the next four years, they can accrue 160 hours. From the sixth through the tenth years, they can accrue 200 hours. After that, they can accrue 240 hours.

Gust indicated the final threshold was adjusted down from 16 years to 11 years because the 10-year interval was too long.

Commissioner Deb Reinicke agreed, saying the lower threshold "gives people something to work for."

In presenting the provisional budget for review, Barrick noted that the building fund request could be increased to cover the cost of roofing the Public Safety Building. Buildings and Grounds Superintendent Dave Hare indicated he is still waiting for bids.

Barrick also indicated that until the utility valuation is received, she would not be able to confirm revenue from property taxes. The provisional budget projects tax revenue at $4,255,722. Other revenue in the general fund is projected at $724,475.

The total general fund appropriation is projected at $5,296,887. The provisional budget indicates the county will need to apply $595,474 from its reserves to meet this. This amount is $59,013 over last year's $536,461.

The road and bridge fund appropriation is projected at $3,336,612. Revenue for the road and bridge fund will include $500,000 carried over from fiscal year 2020, $379,500 in taxes, a transfer from the general fund in the amount of $1,039,112 and $1,428,000 from other revenue sources.

When these funds are combined with the county's other funds, such as 911 communications, the building fund, 24/7 program and dive team, the provisional budget projects total appropriations for fiscal year 2021 at $9,635,765.