Try this on for size: Over the past four years, Allegheny County cut its workforce by nearly 300 people.
And yet, it's spending more on payroll than ever.
As politicians in Wisconsin and elsewhere made a pinata out of public employees and the unions that represent them over the past few years, Allegheny County is quietly dealing with the reality that salary and health care costs will nearly always keep up with personnel cuts.
Last year, the county paid $323 million for employee-related expenses, including salaries, overtime and bonus pay. That's $19.4 million over 2009, an increase of 6.4 percent.
At the same time, the number of full-time employees decreased from 6,745 to 6,466, a drop of 4 percent.
Might seem a paradox worthy of a theoretical physicist, but to Allegheny County manager William McKain, a CPA-turned-leader who never is far from his much-used green calculator, it's simple: Unlike the private sector, most county employees are covered by union-negotiated contracts that mandate modest pay increases every year.
And because payroll is one of the biggest portions of the budget, it will always be a driver in perennial hand-wringing over budget shortfalls.
"We are a service government. We deliver services," Mr. McKain said. "You have to attract and retain people with competitive rates."
Politicians debating budgets have picked on employee costs since time immemorial, but the rhetoric kicked into high gear under Dan Onorato, who headed the county during the onset of the Great Recession and once paired his proposal of a drink tax with the ejection of 200 jobs.
Since then, the county has toned its fervor. In 2011, county council raised taxes for the first time in 12 years to avoid layoffs in the Department of Human Services. Now, as officials negotiate new contracts with more than a dozen unions, both county and labor representatives say their relationship is as friendly as it has ever been.
"We've had a long relationship with the county," said Rich Stanizzo, business manager of the Pittsburgh Regional Building Trades Council, who negotiated for a number of county unions. "And I think it's good. But with inflation, everything goes up. I don't know the answer to that. Everyone's facing it."
The average county employee earns just over $40,000 a year, including overtime. Mr. Stanizzo pointed out that much of the vitriol directed at public workers stems from the perception that they're living high on the hog, enjoying perks at the taxpayers' expense.
He begs to differ. Ten years ago, most public sector jobs were considered low-paid, although they brought good benefits, he said. But as the private sector pulls back, cutting salaries and replacing pensions with 401(k)s, the gap has narrowed.
"These county employees who were just holding on, they weren't getting generous raises, but they were making progress," Mr. Stanizzo said. "Now they look like they're making a lot of money, because the private sector's not keeping up."
That said, there are outliers. The highest salaries are where you'd expect -- No. 1 is Chief Medical Examiner Karl Williams, a physician, at $180,250; No. 2 is District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr, at $168,540 -- but a number of mid-level employees have put their salaries in the major leagues through overtime.
A registered nurse at Kane Regional Centers nursing homes clocked in at $132,000 last year, boosted by overtime from a base salary of $55,000; an emergency management telecommunications officer bumped up her salary to $106,000 from $42,000.
Despite this, overtime payments have dropped by $2 million since 2009, down to $18.6 million.
In the end, overtime is small potatoes compared to the total cost of county government. Total payroll is not. Mr. McKain figures the best he can do is make sure he doesn't bring on a new employee that he'll have to let go a year later.
"We're very judicious with any type of hire we make," he said. "It's a case-by-case basis. We only hire when it's essential."
Andrew McGill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1497.