County gets six proposals for pay, benefits study

Chris Berendt Staff Writer

January 2, 2014

In an effort to address an ongoing issue that will have a huge impact on the future of Sampson County’s workforce, proposals have been requested for a comprehensive review and analysis of the county’s pay classification and total compensation and benefits programs.

In recent years, many employees have cited Sampson’s non-competitive salaries, its stagnant tax base, large school construction debt and the Board of Commissioners’ desire to avoid raising taxes to make ends meet as a perfect storm that has contributed to low morale and the county’s status as a training ground for others. Whether they get a raise or not, the majority of those employees said they at least wanted to know there was a plan going forward.

County officials have conceded the pay plan has been broken for some time, and if left in its current state, it would be just a matter of time before it broke the county. The comprehensive review of pay classification and benefits is hoped to start repairing that system.

In October, the Board of Commissioners directed staff to seek out costs for a pay plan and classifications and benefits study.

“The proposals have to first be reviewed and evaluated by the management team,” assistant manager Susan Holder said. The county put out a RFP (request for proposals), setting a deadline of close of business Monday. The county received six total proposals, assistant manager Susan Holder said prior to offices closing for New Year’s.

The proposals will have to be reviewed by county managerial staff in the near future.

“I suspect we should have recommendations for the board by late January, early February,” Holder said.

According to the county, the end product should update the county’s classification system and salary ranges to allow the county to remain competitive in the job market, while reassessing internal salary relationships and establishing internal equity between classes. Building greater career progression opportunities for employees, ensuring that job descriptions comply with applicable laws and regulations and assessing the competitiveness in the labor market of the county’s employee benefits — and identifying recommendations for future actions — were also key goals of the study.

“The desired objective is to implement an equitable, consistent, competitive and legally defensible classification system that allows the county to attract, reward and retain qualified individuals to provide the highest level of service at the lowest possible cost to the citizens of the county,” the county stated in its RFP.

Sampson County currently has one salary schedule and job classification system that encompasses all county positions. It utilizes a hiring rate, minimum, mid‐point and maximum for each pay grade. There are no steps in grade, and the concept of midpoint is not formally used. A study was conducted in the late 80’s by David M. Griffith & Associates, and a subsequent study was performed by Management and Personnel Services (the MAPS Group) in 2003. The plan was partially implemented in May 2003, offering each employee a minimum 3 percent increase, and capping the maximum increase to 10 percent. The 3 percent increase was effective as of July 1, 2003, all increases above 3 percent were effective one half on July 1, the second half on Jan. 1, 2004.

“Due to lack of sufficient funds to fully implement this study, compression issues have persisted,” the county stated.

County manager Ed Causey said as much in October, when the issue was taken up in one of the county’s first topics in its new monthly budget discussions. Many department heads threw their two cents in at the session, touting the need for a better method of compensating employees.

“We’ve got a lot of things that need to be looked at,” said Causey. “I don’t know how else to do it other than (a pay study). If we want to maintain a viable workforce and ensure a stable and productive future workforce, we need to ensure that we have established competitive salaries and also ensure that we have internal equitability as we move forward.”

A classification study would assist in grading positions according to the current demands and the work actually being done, while a benefits study may be the “most complex” portion of the evaluation. With health insurance rising at an accelerating rate, those costs, the budgetary impact on Sampson and how the county compares to others must be examined, Causey said.

“At present, it is generally thought that our benefits package is extremely favorable when compared to others. We need to evaluate to determine where we stand,” said Causey, who also noted the importance of looking at the liability posed by post-employment benefits. “We must determine what is sustainable in order to protect the long-term viability of the county and ensure that we can pay future benefits to our many valuable retired employees.”

Many employees, while imploring for salaries to be more competitive or at least be given a chance for advancement on a pay scale, have conceded that it is the extremely favorable benefits package that has kept them here. It is the best recruiting tool that department heads have when hiring, they said.

A portion of the benefits package, notably insurance costs, are shouldered by employees in other counties. That is not the case in Sampson, where the county pays out $935 a month for each of its permanent employees. That cost rose nearly 50 percent, from $634, in 2012-13, an overall hike of more than $1.5 million for employee health benefits alone.

Causey has said a more permanent solution will be crucial in the county’s sustainability.

Without adjustments, shouldering full insurance costs would drain county funds and leave department requests unfunded, employees without competitive pay and contribute to even deeper cuts down the line. That means modifications to the county’s pay system, concerns over which he said has “reached catastrophic proportions.”

Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at