Dems/Reps bump heads over 4-day work-week question

Published 9:04 am Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Polk County Commissioners squabbled last week over a question asked to department heads regarding how their department could deal with a 4-day work-week.
Commissioners met for the county’s annual retreat on Jan. 24 that included sessions with each department head. Department heads answered questions commissioners had previously sent each director.
One question regarding a 4-day work-week posed by Republican commissioners Ted Owens and Tom Pack struck a nerve with Democrats.
Democrats Ray Gasperson, Renée McDermott and Cindy Walker said the question hurt county employee morale. Owens and Pack said the question was only posed to get employees on board if times get hard considering the state’s financial situation. Owens and Pack also accused Democrats of trying to make the question political.
Gasperson addressed the issue during the first part of the retreat by saying the question implies that the county is on the brink of major financial difficulties and he strongly disagrees.
“The net result of all of this false controversy is that the morale among our county employees has taken a severe blow,” said Gasperson.
Owens addressed Gasperson’s read statement saying the reason the question was asked was for people to think. He said the state is facing a $3.8 billion shortfall and the county needs to not wait until the last minute to do something.
“Hopefully, we pray we’ll never have to go there, but what if we do?” asked Owens. “We’re (North Carolina) $3.8 billion in the hole and counting. You think the state is not going to pass that to us?”
Gasperson said Owens and Pack’s question regarding a 32-hour work-week is essentially a 20 percent pay cut and would impact employees’ ability to do their jobs.
“What’s even more puzzling is that only a few weeks ago, commissioner Owens asked our finance officer how much it would add to the budget to give county employees up to a 5 percent pay increase,” Gasperson said.
“But for you to say we tried to hurt the morale of the employees is wrong,” Owens said. “Why would you make it a political issue?”
McDermott said the question may not have been intended to hurt employee morale, but she thinks it did.
“You may should have sat down with (department heads) one on one,” said McDermott. “A lot of times there are unforeseen consequences and this may have been one of those times.”
Pack said he has been in business for years and there has to be planning. He said the county has no idea what the impact of the economy will be and in a few years, “we’re going to be in trouble.” If the employees don’t buy into the county’s plan, he said, it’s not going to work.
“Ray, I don’t know why you’re trying to make it political, but you are,” Pack said. “It’s time for the politics to stop. “
Walker steered commissioners in a new direction reminding them they had 29 departments to hear from in two hours. The county’s retreat was held from 9 a.m. until after 3 p.m., then commissioners held a regular meeting that was cancelled due to the Jan. 10 snow.
Commissioners’ questions included how a 4-day work-week would affect departments, what percent of each department could be reduced if necessary, what challenges each department faces, what each department can do to make it more efficient, if there are any special or future public building and/or maintenance needs, how the county can save taxpayer money and if salary levels have been a problem recruiting and retaining staff, among others.