As county staff begins preparing a 2013-14 budget proposal, department heads have submitted to managerial staff and the Board of Commissioners “state of the department” letters to consider alongside budget figures — many paint a picture of continued need, especially in the area of human infrastructure.
Many requested the county keep quality of service at the forefront of decision-making, as well as those providing that service.
Building Codes administrator Myron Cashwell, who heads up the County Inspections Department, expressed his desire to continue the county’s credo of “doing more with less,” but conceded it has not gotten any easier.
“My employees, as well as other employees, are working harder with less to provide only the highest quality of services to the citizens of our county,” Cashwell stated. “As in previous years, on behalf of the employees, I respectfully ask for a cost of living increase to help with the ever-increasing day-to-day expenses they are facing.”
While the department is dedicated to providing high quality service at lowest possible cost,” Cashwell said it was equally important to note that the salaries in the department, like others, are “merely near the midpoint range of our pay grade classifications.”
“In these economic times, I strongly feel that we need to invest in our people by providing a pay increase,” Cashwell said.
Some department heads noted the inclusion in budget requests of merit-based increases for specific tenured or dedicated employees. Others expressed the desire just to keep positions filled, which they described was a difficult prospect with the county’s current pay structure.
Health director Wanda Robinson, echoing statements made earlier this year, said in her letter that recruitment and retention of professional staff is an extreme concern for the Health Department.
“During the last year, there have been 11 resignations,” stated Robinson, who noted those resignations ran the gamut of expertise areas. “They consisted of four nurses, one nutritionist, one accounting specialist, one health educator and two EH (environmental health) specialists. This creates low morale, decrease in clinic numbers and decrease in revenues. It is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit staff when salaries for Sampson are up to $3,000 less than surrounding counties.”
She said Sampson has become a training agency for other counties. Sheriff Jimmy Thornton, in his correspondence to the county, agreed with that assessment. Thornton said it has been a constant battle to retain dedicated, knowledgeable and experienced staff to serve the county.
“In attempting to fulfill my obligation to the citizens of Sampson County, one of the greatest obstacles I am met with is that of maintaining experienced and tenured employees,” the sheriff said. “Our major concern at the Sheriff’s Office is our high turnover rate.”
Currently, there are 41 officers with the Sheriff’s Office who have been employed with the department for three years or less, or one out of every four deputies (26 percent). In the Detention Center, 43 percent of officers have three years or less experience.
“In the field of law enforcement, success is a function of an officer’s experience and ability to make sound decisions with little supervision or oversight. We cannot expect this form officers with little or no experience,” Thornton stated. “In our profession, high turnover rate equates to less work productivity, more complaints and low morale.”
Like Robinson, he pointed to Sampson salaries as compared to other counties.
He said that an inexperienced Duplin County deputy is hired at a rate $1,616 a year higher than in Sampson; a Detention Center officer is hired at $448 more in Duplin. Thornton said figures from Bladen County show that, with a 2.2 percent increase in January 2013, their rate places them $3,400 a year higher for a starting deputy and $1,356 for a Detention Center officer over Sampson’s numbers. That has translated to tremendous turnover in Sampson.
Thornton used the Dunn Police Department as an example — during a recent retirement function for a Dunn officer, the sheriff found that five former Sampson sheriff’s deputies worked for the Dunn agency. Reiterating Robinson’s concerns, the sheriff said Sampson is serving as a training ground, a launching pad toward better pay elsewhere.
“All of these officers are Sampson County residents and began their law enforcement career with our Sheriff’s Office. They received their training with us and left for higher pay. We must find a solution to our high employee turnover within the Sheriff’s Office. While pay might not account for 100 percent of our losses in staff it is clear that the vast majority was due to our low pay.”
The sheriff said his department will be “working tirelessly” with the county manager and commissioners to address the issue “so that we can provide the citizens of Sampson County with the level of service they deserve.”
Along with the effort to maintain level of service and do more with less, a phrase used one way or another by nearly every department head, there are also mandates from the state that don’t just spread staff thin, but are stretching them to the breaking point. Many cited such mandates, including the Department of Social Services.
“Unfortunately we were unable to reduce county expenditures,” said Department of Social Services director Sarah Bradshaw of her proposed budget of nearly $142 million, of which 4 percent — about $4.74 million — consists of county dollars. “The major factors causing our projected increases include legislative program mandates, legislative reduction to revenue, public demand for core services and state implementation of automation projects.”
“Nonetheless, with a goal set to limit the county contribution as much as possible, we included some cost-effective budget strategies as we prepared our proposal,” Bradshaw stated.
One key highlight includes three additional social workers, two of which are needed to address the excessive caseloads for existing staff and one, a Quality Assurance position, targeted to maximize revenue Bradshaw said the department is not adequately tapping into without dedicated staff attention.
That attention has been diverted toward automation and other state mandates with fixed deadlines for implementation.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.