Debate ignites over worker compensation as Elkader struggles to fill MSE spot

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By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

A spirited debate over rates of compensation dominated the recent Elkader City Council meeting, with the conversation emphasizing how difficult replacing the Main Street Elkader (MSE) director has become under the city’s budget constraints in an economy seized by inflation.

The core issue was what the city should pay for an MSE director. While this debate was sidetracked briefly by a misunderstanding as to how the MSE position was advertised to fill the spot vacated by Samantha Baumgartner, it did not undercut the crux of the arguments. The majority of the council, apart from Tony Hauber, would not agree to any wage increase above $20 per hour, even as the first search for a qualified candidate yielded zero results and second search finished with two viable candidates, but with both asking for $22.

Exacerbating the debate was the fact that, during the same meeting, the council agreed to a job description change that included a wage increase for the public works position, in an effort to “stay competitive” and keep up with the game,” said Public Works Director Jason Scherf. He defended the increase due to the fact the city had “fallen way behind” and it was simply time to update the pay scale.

According to Elkader City Administrator Jennifer Cowsert, that specific pay scale had not been updated in about four years, but has since gone from $16 an hour to $17.50. A cursory look into the surrounding areas stresses how far behind Elkader has fallen, with similar jobs being paid $18 and $18.30 in surrounding areas.

This decision was a head scratcher for Hauber, who wondered why the council would support a wage increase for one position in public works, but stand firm against raising the wage or even negotiating when it comes to the MSE position, despite the difficulty in filling the vacancy.

On this issue, council member Peggy Lane was quick to point out that the MSE wage was increased within the last 18 months to hire Baumgartner, but the public works position hadn’t been adjusted in the last four years. Deb Schmidt kept going back to the budget, stating that her lack of agreement was tied to what has been budgeted, and the rate of the MSE position was not budgeted for $22 per hour.

“We had a budget already. It was advertised… As a council, we can’t do the right thing for our citizens of Elkader and spend that extra money just because [MSE] wanted it,” Schmidt said.

In a separate interview, Schmidt added, “The applicant asked for $22 an hour and it’s not in our already approved budget. We have been advised by the state to budget conservatively this year because of state funding changes.”

Cowsert stated the increase would be around $3,700 if the council approved the $22, which seems unlikely as of now.

Lane offered another take. “I struggle with the idea…that we advertised a position for a rate, people apply, they interview, and then they’re like, ‘By the way, I want more money.’ That’s what it was listed at. So you’re either interested in the job at that rate or you weren’t.”

Randy Henning pointedly said, the current wage is “all that we can afford.”

As it became clear the council was not going to approve the $22-perhour rate, Hauber was left with hypotheticals, such as what the council would do if MSE did a third round of interviews and couldn’t find a qualified candidate at $20 per hour. Would council still Debate ignites over worker compensation as Elkader struggles to fill MSE spot not budge on the $22 wage?

Lane stated she would “reevaluate the situation,” which was the prevailing mindset of the remaining members, especially Henning, who was adamantly against increasing above that amount, even as Lane admitted she’s not sure the city has “kept pace with the market on that position.”

Not keeping pace is something Hauber commented on in an email exchange. “The rate council left the job description is not competitive,” he stressed.

“I am unsure what is fueling the fixation on a wage that is not even current to the position. Wishing harder to pay that wage will not magically manifest people that are qualified and willing to work it at that rate,” Hauber added.

An individual who appears to agree with Hauber is Mayor Josh Pope, who served on the hiring committee that agreed to the $22. “We have a committee that has worked for three months on this hiring process and I think the council needs to take their recommendation,” Pope said. 

One argument that has come up frequently at meetings in regard to city wages, and was used to partly justify not raising the MSE position to $22 per hour, is the Elkader’s health plan, but there is often little in the way of specifics as to how this covers the gap in wages. No member of the council commented on the question when asked, nor did the mayor.

Cowsert stated the council’s justification stems from the fact that health insurance plans are a viable option in this area because they aren’t paid out of the general fund like wages are. She added that “in most cases, if [city employees] go to providers in-network, they would never have to pay anything for anything health care related,” though she couldn’t quantify the financial impact that amounts to, only that they would realize it by not having to pay a health insurance premium.

Aside from those issues, Hauber underlined the toll this search has taken on MSE, stating that “MSE is suffering” and there is a potential loss of volunteers, who are being stretched thin the longer this drags on. While several council members said they understood the problem, there was little in the way of solutions, though Schmidt added outside the meeting that she remains confident in MSE.

“I am confident the MSE board will motivate their volunteers like they always have. Main Street has very wise and talented people in position. They are problem solvers that find ways to make things better for our community. They will certainly solve this,” Schmidt said.

However, Hauber reiterated these concerns via the email exchange.

“I think our volunteer pool is stretched thin, and the position we are hiring for is a big part of supporting that volunteer pool,” he said.

He added that the MSE position works and organizes to make the city competitive for grants and “every day that ticks by without a director we become less competitive. When we succeed at getting grants, we bring tens of thousands of dollars into this community in a way that is designed to improve property value across the board.”

Not to mention the numerous events the MSE Director helps support and plan, like Art in the Park and Rhythm on the River, which promote community and foster tourism that helps support downtown retail.

“While we debate these wages and potentially restart a hiring process, the community loses out on the services,” Hauber said.

Meanwhile, council member Eric Grau commented he has “been losing sleep” over this issue since he became aware of it. While he understands the importance of filling the MSE position, he is also aware of the budgetary constraints and “high levels of debt due to recent infrastructure projects.”

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