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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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Personnel Okays Assistant Communications Director

“To have him as the sole person responsible for operation of this 24/7 department without backup is unconscionable!” Marinette County Administrator Ellen Sorensen told the Marinette County Personnel and Veterans Service Committee on Friday, Jan. 11. They had just been informed that Communications Director Terry Zimmerman, head of the county’s 911 Emergency Dispatch Center, has been working for over seven years without backup. Committee action to rectify that situation by approving an assistant administrator position, “effective immediately,” upon approval of County Board was prompt and unanimous.

Sorensen said her recommendation to eliminate one dispatcher position and replace it with a new Assistant Communications Director position was not just about department heads being able to take occasional time off without worrying about departmental responsibilities, although that is important. It was more about having continuity of service, a backup person who understands the department and can take over when necessary, she said.

She referred to Pete Vilas, former Assistant Forest Administrator, who recently was named to replace Forestry, Parks and Land Administrator John Scott, who retired on Jan. 1. She said that sort of backup and promotion from within is ideal, and is possible because Vilas was trained as assistant administrator. Later in the meeting she reported that Vilas’ transition into the top position in his department is going well.

In the case of 911 Dispatch, which responds to calls for help from all emergency service providers in the entire county - Sheriff’s Department, municipal police departments, fire departments, and emergency rescue squads - continuity of service is absolutely critical, Sorensen declared. She also said it is important for administrators to have occasional breaks from their responsibilities, which Zimmerman has not had because there is no one trained to take over when he is gone.

Zimmerman said on a recent two week vacation there was not a single day that he did not get a call requiring him to handle one crisis or another on his department. For example, if someone calls in sick, they need to call in a replacement promptly. “Maybe at 3 a.m. on an icy Tuesday night in the middle of winter, we can get away with two dispatchers on duty instead of three, but not otherwise,” Zimmerman declared.

Supervisor Ken Keller, who chairs the Law Enforcement Committee, asked if there had been previous requests for a backup administrator that had been turned down. Zimmerman said he had asked, “but I don’t think it made it past my supervisor.” Keller did not recall ever receiving such a request.

Keller explained that in the past the dispatch service had been under the Sheriff’s Department, and was supervised by the Sheriff. It later became a separate department.

Supervisor Nick Lakari asked to what extent, if any, the new assistant administrator is expected to carry out the regular dispatch duties they now handle, and wondered if the department can manage with one of the current people working part time as a dispatcher and part time as assistant department head.

Zimmerman said it should work out. He expects the person selected as second in command will work side by side with the other dispatchers about fifty percent of the time once initial training is over.

The Assistant Director will be a working dispatcher and perform supervisory duties in the absence of the Communications Director. Additional duties on the job description include assisting in preparing the department schedule and budget. Job functions will include hiring and training employees, enforcing policies and procedures, conducting disciplinary meetings, providing work direction, share on-call responsibilities with the director, performing dispatch duties, and assure care and custody of all county property and facilities associated with the job.

The committee also approved eliminating a seasonal Forest Equipment Operator position for the Forestry Department and replacing it with a full time position, also effective upon County Board approval. There will be some extra cost, but the full time position was already provided in the 2013 budget. However, apparently health and dental insurance costs were not put in the budget, so there will be additional costs ranging between $10,458 to $31,410, depending on the plan selected.

Sorensen said not only is there plenty of work to be done in the County Forest and on other county lands, but the new full time position requires a Commercial Driver’s License and the person hired will provide backup for the Highway Department for winter snow plowing. She said when the position is filled the department will have four full time equipment operators plus a working foreman who also holds a CDL, which means there are five operators available to help the Highway Department with plowing in winter, and plenty of work for them to do when it does not snow. The job has to be posted because they are going from a seasonal to a full time employee.

Several changes to staffing connected with restructuring of the Health and Human Services Department were approved as recommended by Administrator Robin Elsner. An Economic Support Worker position will be eliminated. Elsner said they have 11 and now because of some changes they need only 10. Supervisor Ken Casper asked if anyone will be laid off and Elsner said no, someone who retired will not be replaced. Sorensen commented it is her philosophy whenever anyone retires or is laid off to look at how the department can be restructured to eliminate the position if possible.

Also being eliminated is a clerical account clerk position in the Job Center, effective immediately, that has been vacant since the former backup receptionist retired in 2012. State Job Center personnel are providing backup support to the front desk, so Elsner believes the position is no longer needed.

In another sector of Human Services Department reorganization connected with moving into the new Aging Resources Division, the committee approved eliminating a long-term case manager for the elderly/physically disabled long term services unit. That position also is currently vacant and will not be re-filled.

The committee approved creation of a 13-week limited term mental health therapist position for the Niagara Clinic, effective immediately. This should result in no cost to the county or may even generate more income than it costs.

Elsner said the current therapist at Niagara works 40 hours a week, but the wait for a follow-up appointment is six to eight weeks. Elsner said people in crisis are seen promptly, but there is basically no follow up. After the initial 90-day trial period Elsner will evaluate the position to decide if it should be made full time. Sorensen said this position also serves Florence County on a contract basis, and Marinette County bills them for the services.

Sorensen reported she is working on department head evaluations and other projects requested by the Executive Committee last fall, and is monitoring mid-level management with an eye to ensuring the availability of qualified successors.

In his exit interview a retiring county department head somewhat reluctantly pointed out that retiring managers do not have access to dental insurance. He asked if they could be given an option to purchase dental insurance, perhaps by offering unused sick days as an incentive. There was a suggestion to find a way to do partial “VEBA” for non-rep employees, which could eliminate misuse of sick leave, perhaps allowing conversion of even 25 percent of sick time as an option.

She is working on developing a Medical Examiner position, Sorensen said, adding that Brown and Oconto Counties want to develop a regional Medical Examiner service, and she is looking into that, along with other ways to partner on services.

For example, she said they are looking at the possibility of having librarians at the branch libraries throughout the county sell things like firewood, camping and firewood harvest permits, county park reservations and the like so people do not need to drive all the way to Marinette.

Sorensen said the telephone service auditors have told her they found numerous spots for savings on telephone costs, and she was to have a phone interview with them the following week.

Bills included a charge from WERC (Wisconsin Employment Relations commission) for the services of an independent hearing examiner.

On a lighter note, Sorensen reported Health and Human Services employees held a potluck in December and Land Information had one for the Packer playoffs.

Human Resources Director Jennifer Holtger reported forklift training offered through the Department of Commerce is the January safety topic for county employees.

Holtger said she received a call from the county’s Workman’s Comp insurance carrier saying last year was a pretty good one for the county in terms of employee injuries, and this year is off to a good start. County employees reported eight injuries in December and so far in January, three that required medical attention and four that involved only reports. The accidents that required medical attention included a facial gash, sore knuckles and a sore or swollen right hip and left knee. There were no lost-time injuries.

They have been taking steps to prevent injuries, including holding a Highway Safety Day for the first time, with training help from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

“And they will have one every year from now on!” Sorensen added. “We owe it to our Highway employees to give them the safest work environment possible.”

“I had a ‘proud mama’ moment the other day,” Holtger said, telling of driving through a highway construction area where signs were properly posted well in advance and safety equipment and practices were being properly used. “They’re really on their toes, they know what they’re doing over there,” she declared.

Holtger said she continues to work on uniform job descriptions, and is confident she can get the Highway Department down to three or four in preparation for the Wipfli wage study. Cost of wage/salary ratings through Wipfli, a nationally prominent CPA firm, is $300 to $350 per job description, so it is important to get the number narrowed down. The study is intended to help the county set comparable compensation for comparable jobs in all county departments.

Holtger reported newly hired county employees include a long term services case manager and a child protective services ongoing social worker for the Health and Human Services Department. A person hired to fill a state patrol/bridge tender position with the Highway Department worked for one day and then resigned, Holtger reported.

Since the last committee meeting two county employees resigned and one retired.

County Corporation Counsel Gale Mattison reported there are some changes that should be made to formal county policies and procedures to bring them into line with what is actually being done, but there are so many issues remaining to be settled as a result of some new Wisconsin state policies.

“I feel it’s crazy to bring you one or two sentences at a time ,” Mattison said, adding she prefers to wait until the judge’s decision comes in regarding employee unions and recertification, and the question, “are there really unions that exist now?” is answered.

Marinette County is following the lead of 35 other counties and has asked the WERC to clarify these issues and the regulations that go with them, including union certification, Mattison said.

Unless there is an emergency, the committee will not meet in February. The next meeting was set for 9:30 a.m. Friday, March 8, in the Jury Room at the Courthouse.


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