As retirement nears, county struggles to replace long-time department head

By Martin Kidston

Missoula County commissioners on Tuesday debated the first step in replacing the county’s risk and benefits manager and whether to revamp the office he has overseen for the past few decades before making a new hire.

Missoula County Courthouse

Doing so could include a study to review the county’s existing benefits package and whether risk, compensation and benefits should continue to be managed under a single umbrella in county government.

“I know these are specialized areas and I’m concerned with the length of time this might take, that that department may be without the expertise we really need,” said Vicki Zeier, the county’s chief administrative officer. “No matter what we do with this department, it’s gong to take time to transition to a new direction.”

Hal Luttschwager announced his retirement earlier this year and plans to depart in the coming weeks. His office oversees everything from property and casualty insurance to risk management and employee benefits.

But the county is unable to locate the proposal under which Luttschwager first began the job. That has left several commissioners frustrated and has added to the challenge of finding an agreeable starting point to begin seeking a replacement, especially if the county looks to review its benefits package and make possible changes to the office’s structure.

“It’s been floated that we should do a study and then hire, but it hasn’t been decided what it is we want to study,” said Commissioner Cola Rowley. “We can’t commission a study with no purpose. Until we can come up with a scope of work, we have no study to do.”

Patty Baumbgart, the county’s director of human resources, suggested that compensation and benefits could be handled in house by existing employees on an interim basis after Luttschwager leaves the job.

Yet she believes the county lacks an employee who can manage risk, a task that includes experience in litigation, claims management and settlement negotiations.

While the county could hire a new manager to reorganize the office after the completion of a study, Commissioner Stacy Rye was reluctant to take that route.

The county is self insured, though Rye said it lacks a governing board and appellate process for insurance claims. She also raised concern over worker’s compensation and lawsuits facing the county.

She said the county doesn’t yet know what it wants a new risk and benefits manager to do, and it would be unfair to change the job after a new hire was made.

“My concern is, I don’t believe a new person would have the benefit of impartiality, because they would immediately have a horse in the game,” Rye said. “If a study comes back and says we should be doing something different, does that person’s scope of duties change? Can it be written into an employment contract?”

Zeier also suggested changes to the position, along with a closer look at the county’s bundled services and benefits including medical, dental, vision, worker’s compensation and wellness, among others.

She also believes the county should have a review board to oversee any appeals that come to risk and benefits, and she suggested a commissioner should be a sitting member.

When it comes to risk, Zeier said, the county still faces several large cases, including separate lawsuits filed against the county by Paige Pavalone and Josh Clark, both former members of the sheriff’s department.

“During recruitment, you’d need to consider who the person reports to,” Zeier said of a new risk and benefits manager. “I know that’s been something that’s been a concern before. I believe a cost analysis can be conducted in concert with hiring of a new director.”