DARLINGTON, Wis. — Lafayette County leaders have recanted a plan that would have required all county employee bonuses to be approved by the board of supervisors.

The change recently came after board members learned of the competitive disadvantages the proposal would create for the county-owned Memorial Hospital of Lafayette County with respect to hiring and retaining employees.

“Our hospital is required, because it is a public entity, to have complete disclosure to the public in a lot of areas that the administrators of nearby competitors are always monitoring,” said the proposal’s author, Supervisor Scott Pedley.

The proposal was removed from the county board’s agenda this week after it was rejected in committee.

While competitor institutions can conduct business behind closed doors, a public entity that is required to disclose bonus payments could see prospective or current employees scooped away, he said.

“Not very often do we need to make adjustments on a whim around salaries, payment and compensation,” said hospital Chief Operating Officer Molly Wiegel. “But there are times where we are short-staffed and we need to be able to have some flexibility. From a recruitment standpoint, that is essential.”

Pedley’s proposal was spurred after county board members learned that hospital administrators issued bonus payments in a closed-session committee meeting without seeking board authorization first.

The payments amounted to more than $935,000, comprised of unspent federal dollars, including Medicare and COVID-19 pandemic relief aid.

The funds were disbursed, not as bonuses, but as pandemic hazard pay for services already performed by hospital staff. Hospital administrators said they were notified on short notice that the money had to be spent immediately or returned to Washington.

Supervisor Kriss Marion said the proposal was not directed at the hospital, but intended to clarify the county’s procedures pertaining to all employee bonuses, which she characterized as “currently very chaotic.”

She said the lack of transparency that surrounded the hospital episode was “troubling.”

“It’s hard for staff in the county to understand, and it’s created a lot of hard feelings,” Marion said.

Lafayette County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Sauer, who chairs the hospital committee, acknowledged the use of federal dollars could have been better planned, but he believes the situation will not reoccur.

The county already has a policy that holds that hospital hiring and compensation are exempt from some county employment procedures, empowering the hospital committee with hiring and determination of compensation and bonuses.

Pedley said the public can access hospital committee meeting minutes after employment decisions are finalized.

Wiegel said the hospital does not receive money from the county’s tax levy, and generally returns surplus funds to the county budget, where they can be spent by other departments.

The hospital faces workforce shortages like the industry as a whole, she said, and bonuses are issued when practitioners achieve performance goals.

The county also recently authorized $59,000 in hazard pay bonuses for staff at the Lafayette County Health Department and more than $250,000 for those at Lafayette Manor. The payments utilize federal dollars, not revenue from local taxes.

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