Johnson County officials edit, approve $1.7M in employee stipends

County officials last week approved using federal relief money to give all county employees a one-time stipend to help with employment retention, which county officials say is a constant struggle.

The Johnson County Board of Commissioners and the Johnson County Council gave the OK to dole out $1.7 million in a tiered system to all full-time and part-time employees. The cash comes from the $31 million pool of money the county received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA.

The county employs 572 full-time workers and 159 part-time and has been struggling with employee retention, officials say. In the last year and a half, the county has lost over 200 employees — 125 full-time and 97 part-time — according to county documents.

ARPA guidelines allow for funds to be used for “an expanded set of eligible uses to restore and support public sector employment,” including providing worker retention incentives, according to the U.S. Department of Treasury.

The amount of the one-time payments to each full-time employee is dependent on their salary. Full-time employees who make the least, $44,000 or less, will get the largest stipend of $2,500. Employees who make between $44,001 and $72,999 will receive $2,000, and employees who make $73,000 or more will get $1,000. All part-time employees will get a $750 stipend.

This tiered system is a change from the original stipend proposal that went before the commissioners’ special ARPA committee in June. Originally, the stipends were going to be an even $2,500 for all full-time employees and $1,500 for part-time.

The county is struggling the most with retaining lower-paid employees, so this change was made because of that, Commissioner Brian Baird said.

“Those are the employees that we have the hardest time retaining, whether it be for working conditions and or wages,” Baird said during the Aug. 8 meeting. “I don’t think there’s anyone sitting in this audience that would think that this was done unfairly or improperly and or wrongly.”

The proposal passed the county council unanimously on Aug. 8, and the commissioners the same morning by a vote of 2-1, with Commissioner Ron West voting no.

West had already been vocal before about not supporting using ARPA money for payments to employees. Instead, he said he wanted to see funds directed to projects that could benefit all residents. He did not agree that one-time stipends would help with retention, if wages and work conditions are the problems the county is facing.

“This ordinance does nothing. Nothing at all to improve the situation that we’re looking at there in those areas, as far as retention going forward,” West said.

West added he was also upset by the changes made to the proposed stipend amounts without his knowledge. He said he was not made aware of the tiered stipend disbursement until he saw the agenda for the meeting.

He accused Baird of being the sole person making that decision and said he does not have the “unilateral” power to do that. Baird said this was a proposal they all get to vote on, and no one can unilaterally make the decision.

West and Baird then got into a brief argument, where Baird said West was not present or engaged in the stipend discussion leading up to the meeting.

The county council, in contrast, was fully supportive of the stipends.

“I think it is the right thing to do, and I’m sure the employees will appreciate it,” council member Jim Ison said.

Stipend payouts for employees will roll out in September.

This ARPA funds proposal was one of several that passed through the commissioners and council in the last month. The county has allocated around $7.57 million of its $31 million in funds so far.

County officials also on Aug. 8 approved about $580,000 to fund the county Crisis Intervention Team operations, including salaries of two deputies and equipment purchases, for the rest of the year. Just over $400,000 of that is planned to be used for capital improvements to expand the team’s office space.

Additional funding was also approved by the ARPA committee to continue funding the CIT through 2024, bringing the total expected to be allocated to the team to $1 million.

In addition to that, between July and August this year, $1.2 million has been approved to fund the expansion of the Johnson County Animal Shelter, $100,000 for a food pantry grant program and $1.5 million for road paving. And in April, officials allocated $2.5 million from the ARPA funds for street repairs and fiber internet expansion.

Also, $225,000 was distributed to pay for designs for a possible new county building on Drake Road to house departments such as the highway and health departments and the county coroner’s office. This project has been in the works for a while, and little details are known about what exactly it will be at the moment, Baird said on Aug. 8.

“We have been just so all over the board in the last 60 days … it would be really hard to give an answer to a conclusion on what we’re really going to do,” he said.

The special ARPA committee additionally set aside around $8 million in May to go toward building a mental health campus sometime in the future. That money has not received official approval yet.