Any action on an employee pay, classification and benefits study was tabled until March after the Board of Commissioners balked at approving a comprehensive study one commissioner said would only tell the board what it already knew — Sampson pay was not up to par.
While the study would be a one-time $47,000 expense, Commissioner Albert Kirby said a crystal ball wasn’t needed to know the recommendation at the tail end of that study would be that employees should be compensated more. For a fund-strapped Sampson, that annual expense could not be shouldered.
“I don’t believe that we have the money to fund a pay increase at this time. That is what this is,” said Kirby, who cited school debt service, courthouse security funding and aging infrastructure as huge hurdles in the budget already. “We just don’t have the money. We don’t have it.”
The board knows employees need more money, the commissioner said, and spending money to get that recommendation was pointless.
“You can give the pay increase, but I guarantee you within three years you’re going to be jacking up taxes or sending somebody home,” said Kirby. “I can’t vote for a measure that we can’t sustain.”
A request for proposals for a pay, classification and benefits study was advertised and distributed to a dozen prospective vendors in late November, with a deadline of Dec. 30 to submit responses. Six proposals were received and evaluated by a five-person county management team, which recommended Springstead Inc., through a contract with the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, at a base price of $41,778, plus project expenses not to exceed $4,800 — a total of $46,578.
References for the company were “very positive,” county manager Ed Causey noted.
“The goal of the study is to be able to recruit and retain employees based on market conditions,” said finance officer David Clack. “Every county that has done it probably has implemented some increases throughout the (pay) grades. Every time we have done it, when the study came in, we have been found to be pretty far behind.”
By the same token, health benefits in Sampson, where the full amount is shouldered by the county, are considered to be the best. Causey said such a comprehensive study, while likely showing Sampson wages need to be higher in areas, would also reflect where Sampson’s benefits rank in the overall market and how they might also be adjusted in maintaining a solid system.
The study would take about 120-150 days to complete and it could start “within days” of approval. Causey said Springstead would hold 20 meetings during that time to collect necessary information. The county manager said the board, if it chooses to go ahead, should be willing to implement recommendations within the next four years.
“This has been on the discussion agenda for how long now? Two or three years?” board chairman Jefferson Strickland asked.
Kirby addressed the chairman, commissioners and the “citizens of Sampson County” before saying that he just could not go along with the staff recommendation for the pay, classification and benefits study.
He said he thought the county was looking into an efficiency study, ways to improve productivity, enhance government services and eliminate duplication of services. Kirby said he did not want to fire anyone, but wanted to know how positions might be eliminated through attrition, and subsequently replaced by technology.
Commissioners Harry Parker and Kirby asked whether doing an efficiency study would be more prudent for the time being. Causey noted that following prior discussions, and a memo put out to commissioners to possibly consider an efficiency study, he was of the understanding that the board wished to move forward with a classification study.
One efficiency study that was previously talked about would cost an estimated $100,000, Causey pointed out, adding the county could go that route if the board wished. Parker asked if the county could do its own in-house efficiency study, to which Causey replied staff did not have the resources nor the experience to do that.
The $47,000 for the pay study would come from contingency funds. Such a study was budgeted in prior years, but taken out during deliberations.
“I just don’t think we need to spend one penny, or nearly $50,000, to have a consultant tell us that we need to pay our employees more money. I know that already. I don’t think there is a commissioner sitting up here that doesn’t understand that our folks need to get more money,” Kirby said, his voice climbing. “That’s not the problem. The problem is we don’t have the money.”
The pleas from employees in departments countywide for more compensation did not fall on deaf ears, he said.
“People tell us every day,” Kirby remarked. “Commissioners are reminded all the time of the fact that employees are leaving the county and going to other places to work because they’re going to get more money. Commissioners are reminded all the time that Sampson County is a training ground. The problem is not the awareness of the commissioners.”
Kirby said the only way county employees would get raises would be to raise property taxes “substantially.” Causey said Kirby’s points were well taken, and none of those challenges were lost on managerial staff as county employees themselves.
“I’ll be the first one to tell you, I fully recognize that we’ve got dire challenges in Sampson County,” said Causey, noting that those issues with infrastructure — human (employees) and physical (buildings) — only continue to grow. “Unless we have some very professional quality approach in looking at this to decide what we’re going to do … it will just create difficulty and it will be quite challenging to get out of.”
Causey said the pay and classification system in Sampson is broken and, unless a professional study was done, it would be nearly impossible to get to a point where the system was fair and equitable, and somehow reflective of the market.
“We’ve got a problem with personnel, and I know it. We’ve got problems with salaries and positions, and I know it. Our county manager is asking for help. We need some help,” said Commissioner Billy Lockamy. “It’s true, we don’t have the money, but what are we going to do? We have people leaving for higher wages. Are we going to keep sitting here doing nothing? We’ve got to do something fellas. This is an important issue.”
Veterans Service officer Ann Knowles, a county employee for nearly 40 years, implored the board to work toward a solution by which employees may be compensated better.
“I’m asking you to work on some solution for the employees of this county. It’s too late for me. I cannot retire because of my low salary. I’m fortunate that I love my job and I want to work,” said Knowles, “but we need to think about this county’s future. The employees are our best asset and you have a lot of employees who want to work here, but they need a salary to work.”
Knowles agreed with Kirby that debt service looms over the county, but not carrying through with a projected tax increase to pay for that debt has loomed right alongside it. County employees are footing the greatest majority of that bill, Knowles said.
“We pay taxes and then we don’t get raises,” she commented. “I’m pleading with each of you. I’m just begging you to stop and think about our future and the employees like me, who have dedicated our lives to this county. We’ve got to do something.”
Despite a few scattered staff members and department heads, no other county employees were at the Monday meeting other than Knowles, the only employee to speak to the matter. However commissioners have been bombarded by concerns about employee pay for years.
Strickland said the county did not know what recommendations would come out of the pay study, but the board had to be prepared to do something.
“Sampson has nearly 64,000 citizens. We’re talking about dealing with less than 600,” said Kirby. “There are many out there who don’t even have a job or our health care benefits. You can’t sell short what they have now. We are where we are. I don’t like it and I don’t like that I’m the one who has to say this. I’d love to be able to (give employees raises), but we just can’t do it.”
Lockamy made a motion to table the matter, but said it absolutely needs to be discussed in March.
“We’re at the point where we have to do something,” he said.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.