City employees displeased by new city administrator’s PTO time

By : 
Jordan Gerard

The council committed an “oops” when negotiating terms with new city administrator Anne Selness. What was not negotiated in the hiring letter was PTO (paid time off). 

Before the council on Tuesday, Nov. 20 was a resolution to grant 11.38 hours of PTO time per pay period, which was prorated for .8 time at 9.1 hours per pay period or 29.59 days per year, retroactive to the hiring date of Aug. 20, 2018.

That would put Selness at the top of the PTO hours schedule, which would equal working a feat of 15 years.

The reason being since Selness has more than 25 years of professional state and local government service, she should be afforded the top level.

However, city employees who have worked for the city for numerous years and brought experience with them had to start at the bottom of the schedule. 

This did not sit well with employees, who wrote an employee statement voicing their concerns, which was read by Police Chief Paul Folz. Also present was Mary Scoon, the union labor representative.

The statement made clear the inditement was not a reflection of Selness’s work. Since city employees started the union in 2010, no employee has ever started out at the top of the schedule. The general practice is: as an employee gains longevity, their PTO time increases. City employees unionized in 2010 after threats of losing their PTO benefits.

A second point cited the maximum number of hours exceeds more than employees earn or ever earned. The same PTO benefits must be equal to non-union employees also.

Finally, if the council passed the resolution, it would be “made clear and convincing that the current employees mean nothing and the service of employees means nothing and would severely damage the morale of the employees,” Folz said.

Scoon said she has worked with this group of employees for a long time and negotiations were often lengthy and required mediation.

“We were always told everyone must be treated the same,” she said. “This proposal is outside the norm. It’s a matter of fairness and equity. A lot of employees came in with experience and knowledge, but were not treated the same.”

Administrative assistant Stephanie Jaster noted she came in with 10 years of experience and started a little higher than the beginning pay and received a bit higher than the bottom of the scale. Still, she didn’t start out at the top.

It was also noted past city administrators varied in benefits. Former city administrator Tom Falbo negotiated for two weeks of sick time and vacation during his tenure, however, former city administrator, Theresa Coleman, started at the lowest level.

Folz added some employees are at the top of the scale, but they’ve been working for the city for 15 years or more.

“No one ever started at the top,” he said. “No new employee has ever started at the top.” 

Mayor Sarah Schroeder said she talked to Kevin Frazell, Director of Member Services at the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC), who said it is “... appropriate and common practice for local governments to recognize past professional service in setting the CEO’s initial level of vacation and sick leave, and rates of accrual going forward.”

He noted cities “need to agree with the applicant on a total compensation package that is attractive and makes sense for the stage of their professional career.” Most include some level of credit for past relevant experience in setting the initial balance of PTO (vacation and sick leave) and the accrual rate going forward, he also said.

Perhaps the biggest point made is “most experienced professionals will not be interested totally giving up their existing balances (especially sick leave) and starting at the bottom...”

Frazell recommended looking at the number of years of job relevant experience the city was seeking for the job or the candidate brings to the job was a good place to start. 

He also mentioned most employees should be covered by a standardized city-wide policy along with union contracts, however, the LMC saw a manager or administrator position as the exception to that generality. Normally, they are considered an “at-will” employee.

Schroeder said she got the impression it was “perfectly normal to negotiate PTO after the employee was hired, because people don’t always negotiate that.”

She added the city has always treated people equally, non-union and union. However, that would mean other employees would also need to be moved to the top of the scale. She suggested restarting Selness in the middle, not at the top.

The four councilmembers had mixed feelings on the matter, as they all understood the effects of starting a new job and losing benefits from the old job. They also appreciate the research and work Selness has done so far.

Karen Folstad said she appreciates the job Selness has already done and agreed with Schroeder to start her above the bottom level, but not at the top.

Travis Torgerson said the PTO matter should have been decided during negotiations, not months afterwards. He added in his experience in the private sector realm, “that’s pretty much unheard of to start someone at higher steps than when you start.”

Scott Solberg, said when he moved to Spring Grove, he lost all of his benefits from his old job and started at the bottom at Spring Grove Public Schools.

Todd Bornholdt suggested the candidate should have brought it up during negotiations, and it might not be the city’s responsibility to negotiate that.

Public Utilities Director Paul Morken said the employees have been told in negotiations, “if we don’t like it here we can leave.”

The council decided to take no action on the matter and send it to the personnel committee to discuss a possible solution. The personnel committee consists of Schroeder and Folstad. It was created when the city administrator position was created. Schroeder and Folstad formed the job description, performed the job search and interviewed candidates leading up to Selness’s hire.

2019 Street and Utility Improvements

The second biggest item on the agenda was an agreement with WHKS for five different street and utility projects identified as a need in 2019.

First on the list is reconstructing the sidewalk and concrete curb and gutter along the northerly side of Maple Dr. between Division Ave. and 1st Ave. NE.

Second, a reconstruction of 1st Ave. NW between 1st St. NW and Highway 44 will be done. This project includes water main and storm sewer reconstruction. Coordination with Kwik Trip will also be done two times to discuss designs and construction.

In addition, the sidewalk and steps at city hall will also be redesigned.

The third project is to reconstruct 2nd Ave. NW between 1st St. NW and Highway 44, including water main and storm sewer reconstruction. WHKS will meet with the school to review the plans and impacts to school property.

That project hopes to be started by the time school lets out for the summer so it’s completed by the time school starts again.

Fourth, a project will reconstruct the water main along 1st St. NW between 2nd Ave. NW and 3rd Ave. NW, including roadway and curb lines.

Finally, the last listed project will reconstruct 3rd Ave. SW from 2nd St. SW to about 300 feet south of 3rd St. SW. This will add new curb to the east side of 3rd Ave. and add a storm water system to catch and convey the water to the existing crossing south of 3rd St. SW.

The final design estimate for the projects is expected at $75,000.

Heritage House

The council received a memo from Courtney Bergey, EDA Director about a future Habitat for Humanity House that would be built in Spring Grove next summer.

There hasn’t been a Habitat for Humanity house built in Houston County for decades, she noted. What’s more, the house is being designed by local architect Miranda Moen and students from Spring Grove Public School’s Makerspace class. That class is funded by a Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) grant.

Once designed, the plans go to Habitat’s architects to finalize the plan. Volunteers are found, local contractors and suppliers are hired and a partner family is found to buy the house upon completion and at the appraised value.

Bergey said it’s exciting for Spring Grove and positive press. The recent zoning ordinance changes approved by the council helped the Habitat plan move forward.

The council was not required to take action on the memo, but was pleased to hear the project was moving forward.

Feasibility study for trails

The council approved a feasibility study with University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (UW-L) to partner with Professor Laurie Harmon and her class to study if it would be feasible for Spring Grove to have a 10 mile fat tire bike trail and a three mile trail around the city. Harmon is the department chair of Recreation Management and Therapeutic Recreation. She is also a member of UW-L Tourism Institute.

The two potential trails would connect with the Norwegian Ridge Birding and Nature Trail. Selness applied for an active living area feasibility study. The cost of the study is not to exceed $5,000. That cost will hopefully be paid for with grants that Selness is applying for. 

The cost of the study will be significantly less than bidding it out. It also gives students a chance to learn with a real world example.

Other news

The council approved revised zoning ordinances after no objection was raised at the required public hearing.

The city has long talked about revising the ordinances to better fit Spring Grove. The ordinances more accurately reflect the lot sizes in Spring Grove. A certificate of occupancy is no longer needed.

The council also approved a quote from The Floor Guys of Eitzen for $6,440.12 in order to replace carpet in the log cabin (Syttende Mai Hus) with vinyl tile squares.

Fire Chief Trent Turner told the council they would need a procurement policy in place by August 2019 in order to receive money from a FEMA grant. The council agreed to work on the policy.

Closed session

The council went into closed session regarding possible litigation concerning alleyway access. 

Next meeting

The next meeting of the Spring Grove City Council will be held Tuesday, Dec. 18 at 6:30 p.m.