After years of employee concerns and failed pay studies, the county is moving forward with a comprehensive employee pay, classification and benefits study that is expected to take at least four months to complete and be implemented over the course of several years.
Six proposals for the study were received at the end of December 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.
That recommendation was tabled last month. However, the Sampson Board of Commissioners this week approved spending $47,000 from its contingency funds to go forward.
“This is not a windfall for anybody,” said county manager Ed Causey. “I think it is (positive) for the county, and if I was a citizen in Sampson County I would like the fact that we’re looking at the long-term benefits to make sure we’re trying to develop a responsible process that is going to sustain us for many years and give us a strong building block.”
The 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, Causey said. Over time, with technological advances and changes in the workforce, jobs have also changed a great deal, but in Sampson the classifications for those jobs have not been reviewed or evaluated.
“It will be a tool for us to ensure fairness and minimize unintended discrimination,” Causey said of the study. “I would like to create a system of parity that is of benefit to everyone.”
The study could take about 130-135 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. At a minimum, there will also be three large meetings.
“We’re going to give every employee that works for Sampson County an opportunity to meet with the people doing the study,” said Causey. “Any employee who wants to be interviewed, we will try to make sure that interaction occurs.”
The county manager said the board should be willing to implement recommendations within the next four years, knowing that there will be further discussion and possible options to be mulled after the study comes back.
Echoing comments from last month, Commissioner Albert Kirby said that is a sticking point, not knowing what the study’s recommendations might be or how much they would cost. He likened it to signing a blank check.
Causey said he was not sure what the study would bring either, but looking at market conditions and how Sampson stacks up was a vital part of moving ahead with a fair system regardless of the modifications — changes in pay, benefits, classification, and a possible consolidation or reduction of jobs — needed, he noted.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to make real adjustments. I do not know what those are,” Causey said, before offering some speculation. “There is probably going to be some reasonable significant increases in salary over time. We also think, where our salaries are low, our benefits are very good compared to others. So I would expect we are also going to have to adjust some of our benefits.”
The county has been down this road before.
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.
County staff requested a performance and pay study for employees in 2011 after the 2003 study was completed but never fully implemented. A tight budget put such a study on the backburner where it has stayed, until now.
“I think this is going to be a pretty involved process,” said Causey. “Do I think our employees will benefit at the end of the day? Yes I do. Do I think this is the silver bullet that solves every problem. No, but I do think it is fundamental to get our county on a sound basis to understand what we’ve got and move forward for the future.”
Commissioner Jefferson Strickland said it would be easy to just give a one-time bonus, similar to what the board did a couple years back. But that is a Band-aid, he noted.
“We can’t do that. We have to look long range,” Strickland implored. “We have to look at a comprehensive approach to the entire county employment that includes the pay study, benefits and post-employment benefits. We cannot sustain the programs that we have going on now over the long haul. Some changes have got to take place.”
‘They need help’
Prior to the board’s vote on the issue, about half a dozen employees spoke to the board about myriad concerns, including low pay, stretched resources, lack of advancement opportunities and the need for succession planning and retention of younger employees.
“Sometimes I feel what we discuss with you does not resonate,” said Information Technology employee Michael Warren. “I hear other employees talking, and they’re struggling just like me. Everyone is struggling to the point that if they have a lot of years in, they think they can’t leave. But those that don’t have a lot of years in … we’re losing a lot of young talent. They’re adding a second salary by just leaving the county.”
Sampson County Tax Office employee Teresa Smith said she would greatly appreciate the board’s consideration of the pay study. She agreed with Warren that employees are struggling, and have for years.
“As crazy as it may sound, I love my job. I absolutely love it,” Smith remarked, “but I hate my pay. I have been there almost 10 years and my check is just a little more than $100 (more) than the first check I got, and that is sad. Pay your bills on $1,200 a month. Buy your groceries, pay your light bill, pay your phone bill, buy gas for your car, pay for medicine on $1,200 a month. I challenge you. It’s hard. But I love my job. I love working for the county and I appreciate my job. I appreciate the opportunity to come to work.”
Sampson resident Dee Bryant, an employee at Sampson Regional Medical Center, raised concerns of the money involved in doing an outside study.
“Spending $50,000 for somebody to come in and tell you what you businessmen, you employers already know seems to be a waste,” Bryant remarked. “It seems like you can get together, form a committee and make these decisions and not have to wait however long it’s going to take and spend $50,000 of the county’s money.”
Causey explained that there are 101 different job classifications in the county and its takes a wealth of experience to cull through them as part of a pay and classification study.
“It generally takes people with a lot of expertise,” the county manager said.
Kirby, echoing Bryant’s assessment, said the matter needed to be delved into further, with more county consideration given to it rather than expending money to hire an outside firm.
“I’m not saying that we should not increase the salaries or do something about them. We’ve got to do that,” said Kirby. “I just can’t see how we can spend $50,000 to get the answer to something we already know. It’s not a popular thing, but I want everyone to know I’m not voting against addressing the issue. I’m voting against it as it is proposed. I’m not against addressing salaries.”
“I hate to spend money as much as anybody,” Commissioner Billy Lockamy noted. “It’s your money. It’s my money. It’s taxpayer money. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money. Sometimes you have to spend money to save money. We’ve come to that conclusion.”
However, Lockamy said he felt the county was headed in the right direction with the study. Something needs to be done, he said.
Commissioner Harry Parker agreed. The only commissioner to work for the county, which he did for more than 30 years, Parker said he knew how the employees felt.
“I know some of them out there and I worked with some of them. They need help,” Parker said. “We, as county commissioners and employees, we love this county, but it takes sacrifice and county employees have sacrificed a lot. I know where they’re coming from. We can’t continue what we’re doing now with the employees. I vote for something to be done.”
On a motion by Commissioner Jarvis McLamb, and seconded by Lockamy, the bid was awarded to Springstead in a 4-1 vote, with Kirby dissenting. He noted that his objection “was not to the raise for employees.”
“I think the county employees need a raise, but how to get to that point I’m not really sure,” McLamb said. “I think that we should go ahead and try this and see where it leads us. We’re going to try to do something. If this is not it, we might have to try something else.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.