The Cole County Commission has signed off on salary increases in the county assessor's office, but not before some harsh words were exchanged between commissioners and the assessor.
At Wednesday's commission meeting, Assessor Chris Estes said he's lost 65 years of experience since last year because some key personnel left their jobs, and he blamed that loss on the commissioners not giving him more money in the past to keep experienced employees - an accusation commissioners laughed at.
"It's been like this for seven years," said a frustrated Estes. "I talked with my employees and they said they were leaving because the commission didn't want to reward their work."
Commissioners said they also talked with outgoing assessor employees, and said they made no such comments.
In a letter sent out to assessor's office employees, Cole County Presiding Commissioner Marc Ellinger said, "Due to our statutory restrictions, this increase was approved for solely and exclusively for the calendar year 2014. I want to emphasize that it was only approved because the increase amount fits in the assessor budget totals for 2014.
"This is because the assessor is using budgeted money from other positions he has not filled to be able to fund the increase this year."
The increase is for the last seven months of this year and, with that in mind, Ellinger also said in his letter: "We want you to know that there is no guarantee the funding will be increased in 2015 and, therefore, your salary may very well be adjusted back to the original 2014 salary, plus or minus any countywide salary adjustments."
Estes said: "Currently, I've got just a few people doing the bulk of the work and having to work weekends and nights to get everything caught up - and the commission won't let me pay overtime.
"We have 35,000 personal property accounts and I had a staff of three working on that; now I have two."
Estes said he has four people in training now, and three of those only have about a year of experience in assessment matters.
"We have the bodies, but we're shorthanded on knowledge and experience." he said.
Estes said the assessor's office can afford to give higher salaries, but the county won't let him.
In an earlier lawsuit, Estes contended that he could use the assessment fund to give raises to his employees, but a three-judge panel of the state appeals court's Western District said that the County Commission ultimately controls that fund.
"The commission wants to make decisions for this office," Estes said. "I'm not going to sue over everything because that's counter-productive, but I could give the raises based on how good a job they're doing - and I'm the one who sees it every day and the commission doesn't.
"I want to keep this office as one of the top assessor's offices in the state, but if we keep going this way we'll start having problems. It's inevitable when you have people not as qualified."