SANDY — The Sandy City Council and administration are standing behind a controversial incentive program, but minor changes have been proposed to increase consistency and fairness.

Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan has helped craft recommendations to change the incentive program, but hasn't otherwise commented on it. He will no longer receive any bonus but will accept the pay raises he has declined in recent years, he said.

The 24-year-old bonus program has been criticized after specifics about individuals' payments were publicized by court order. The issue came to light following a four-year government records battle between The Salt Lake Tribune and Sandy city.

Critics allege that the program, unusual for a municipality, unfairly rewarded top officials by providing annual bonuses worth thousands of dollars to department heads and Mayor Tom Dolan. However, the city has said 87 percent of its full-time employees have received the incentives, which average $1,100.

City Administrative Officer Bryant Jorgenson said during a Tuesday council meeting that virtually all city employees appreciate the program because it enhances motivation and rewards longevity. The workers have raised concerns about losing the program and are also concerned about identity theft, he said.

Jorgenson cited a meeting with staffers Tuesday afternoon where 91 percent said the program is still practical and 100 percent said they would like to see it continued, despite the court order to publicize specifics. Jorgenson plans two additional meetings with remaining staffers, he told the council.

"The employees haven't hinted they would like to have some kind of bonus program," Jorgenson said. "They've screamed it."

The City Council has tentatively given the nod to changes Jorgenson proposed Tuesday, but wants to see the outcome of the two remaining meetings before making any final decisions.

"I think we ought to let the employees decide," said council member Bryant Anderson.

Sandy City Employees Association President Chris Partridge said his group has not taken an official position on the incentive program, but most employees want to see it continued. It would be very bad for morale to have bonuses taken away by outside forces, he said. Employees would take it personally.

The city has received a dozen e-mails about the subject, said city spokeswoman Trina Duerkson. One resident also publicly praised the council, but a groundswell of public protest has been conspicuously absent.

For the past few decades, the incentive program has allowed for bonuses up to 6 percent of an employee's salary on top of merit and cost-of-living raises. Department heads administered the lump-sum bonuses after annual reviews in July or in appreciation of special achievements.

The mayor and City Council have sometimes provided money beyond the 6 percent rule. They did so, for instance, in rewarding Jorgenson $8,500 for a national reward he received last year for his work with personnel.

Changes recommended Tuesday would set an incentive cap at 5 percent, with two additional 1 percent bonuses for goal reaching or special achievements. The 5 percent would come into play after long-term employees reach the top of their pay range — an achievement possible in a person's first nine years of employment.

Before "topping out," employees are eligible for 5 percent merit increases annually.

The bonuses give long-term employees "something to keep them trying to achieve," Jorgenson said. Otherwise, they could become disillusioned and may even seek employment elsewhere. Facing the impending retirement of a generation of baby-boomer employees, Sandy is highly motivated to reduce turnover.

So far, the city seems to be succeeding. Sandy has a turnover rate of 8.7 percent among its 500 employees, compared to a national average for state and local employees of 14.9 percent, according to a city compensation report published in January.

Low turnover and high employee satisfaction justify the bonus program, Jorgenson said.

"It's been a good system when we can basically keep current with the market," he said. "In comparison with our sister cities, it's been an excellent system."

The council may adopt the program changes with its 2008-2009 budget.

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