County government jobs in Northwest Indiana look attractive, if you can get one.
The waiting list for full-time Lake County government employment is hundreds of names long, said Tom Dabertin, the county's human resources director.
And with Porter County preparing to pay out more than $37.6 million this year in employee costs, Porter County Councilman Jim Biggs, R-1st, said there is a need to restructure employment practices, decrease services or brace for a tax increase.
"It is clear we cannot sustain the costs associated with continuing what we are currently doing," Biggs said.
Lake County paychecks add up
Lake County will spend between $53 million and $59 million this year on its employees.
Take-home base salaries in Lake County start at $18,600 for the jailhouse support staff and rise to more than $133,000 for the Lake County sheriff.
The benefits are nothing to sneeze at. Health insurance premiums are $50 a month for singles and $75 a month for families, while working stiffs in the private sector are shelling out many times that amount.
County employees also enjoy a pension while many nonunion white-collar workers elsewhere long ago lost that benefit and now must rely on 401(k)s, IRAs and a rising stock market.
Lake County employees work a 40-hour week, but can look forward to a maximum of five or six weeks vacation after they reach 20 years' seniority.
Those hired before 2003 also receive 12 personal/sick days a year and get to bank as many as six unused days a year up to a maximum of 50.
All of that is in addition to 13 paid holidays each year, including Columbus Day.
The only problem, Dabertin said, is job opportunities in county government have been shrinking.
Even though there are 1,695 full-timers -- one employee for every 292 county residents -- that is still 300 less than the 2009 payroll because state-mandated property tax cuts and a depressed economy have made millions of dollars in government revenues disappear.
"A lot of the applications we receive are those seeking office clerical jobs that have been downsized or eliminated," Dabertin said. "A lot of people are qualified and have experience in managing offices, but generally, that is what an elected official does. And when they find out what the pay is, they usually shy away."
Although the midpoint between the lowest and highest wages in county government rests in the comfortable mid-$60,000 range, those peaks, commanded by elected officials, attorneys or engineers, are few.
There are many more corrections officers, cops, caseworkers, truck drivers and ground-level deputies struggling to get by on salaries that qualify single parents of large families for poverty-level assistance. They drag the average full-time employee salary down to The average annual salary is $31,697.
However, taxpayers should note that fringe benefits add another $23,000 to the cost of supporting each wage-earner.
Porter County draws employees with fringe benefits
An employee working for Porter County government for 10 years is eligible for nearly nine weeks of paid time off annually, and the figure jumps to nearly 10 weeks after 20 years on the job, according to figures requested from the county auditor's office.
The employees work 6 1/2-hour or 7-hour days and pay monthly health insurance premiums of $75 for singles and $175 for families. A $50 reduction in the monthly premiums is offered in return for higher deductibles.
County officials, including Porter County Commissioner Laura Blaney, D-South, defend the benefits as necessary to retain quality employees, who they argue are paid less than their peers in the private sector.
"We're going to have the bottom of the barrel," Blaney said of the alternative. "I don't want that."
The median income among Porter County's 629 full-time employees for the current year is $35,048, but the hourly rate jumps to $28.77 when health insurance, retirement and other benefits are figured in, according to the auditor's office. Full-time salaries range from $23,660 to $110,500, for the sheriff.
Porter County employs one person for every 263 residents, based on 2012 Census estimates.
With employee costs rising and revenue diminished by tax caps and fluctuations in the economy, Blaney said the level of benefits is going to have to be revisited.
The issue is of no small concern to Porter County officials, who were told last week during a presentation on a recent study of county finances that employee costs account for 70 percent of the county budget.
"To not address this issue is irresponsible," Porter County Auditor Bob Wichlinski said. "Nothing should be so sacred that it's not considered."
Biggs proposed a pilot program of allowing some county employees to reduce their hours to part-time in return for a higher salary that could be used to buy their own health insurance.