A largely attended public hearing this week saw several speak — and still more submit written comments — on the 2012-13 county budget, with many commending county manager Ed Causey for the inclusion of long-range planning for facility maintenance and employee compensation but others sharing their apprehension as to the implementation of a proposed “career path adjustment” system that would see some get raises this year, while others do not.
The budget is balanced with a General Fund totaling $48.3 million. The tax rate is proposed to remain 78.5 cents per $100 valuation.
The recommended budget includes the establishment of four separate capital reserve accounts to tend to the long-term facility maintenance needs of the county, two school systems and the community college. It also develops a system of “career path adjustments” for employees, through which eligible high-performing employees would receive a pay bump.
The pay adjustment would allow for salary adjustment within the pay grade of employees up to the midpoint for those employees with above-average evaluations. The raises would be made in January 2013. There have been no salary adjustments since 2003, and it has been four years since the county approved a small pay bump for employees.
Sandra Britt, who works in the county’s finance department, said the career path adjustment issues a challenge to employees and she applauded Causey and commissioners for keeping employees in mind.
“I feel they have proposed a very workable solution in regards to securing and maintaining well-trained employees. With the possibility of this progression, we can see the retention of employees instead of training them and about two years later they move to adjoining counties for higher pay,” said Britt. “When we retain our employees, we grow a stronger, more positive family.”
Marcus Smith, currently a deputy with the Sheriff’s Office, agreed in a written comment to the board. He said for too long, Sampson County government has had the ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality. A plan needs to be in place to fix something when it does break, he said.
“This strategic planning not only applies to county buildings and equipment, but should also apply to the most vital part of the county infrastructure — the county employees themselves. Employee pay has been overlooked for over four years now. During this time, employees have had to do more with less, but with the same pay. I understand that initially some employees may feel as if they (have) fallen through the cracks … but the long-term plan will benefit every employee and provide them an opportunity to strive for better performance.”
Each department within Sampson County is faced with high turnover rates on employees, Smith said. Pay is a direct contribution to that turnover rate. Other employees wrote comments, saying more incentive would help Sampson employees stay put.
“For the first time ever, I believe there is finally a plan in place that allows employees to strive to do their very best work knowing they will be compensated accordingly,” said Alisha Jackson, who works with Sampson County Department of Social Services, “paying above average employees for good work and giving them more incentive to stay with Sampson County, instead of looking for jobs in neighboring counties who pay more for the same job.”
“I truly believe that Mr. Causey’s proposal for the career path adjustments is a fair and great way to boost morale among county employees,” added Natalie Blackmon, a social worker with DSS’ Child Protective Services. “I believe it would help with turnover rates as well, because people have incentive to stay longer for that boost once they have accomplished the goals set forth. If you do well, you should be rewarded.”
Donna S. Boone, human service evaluator I for DSS, said she appreciated what the county was trying to do with the career path, but felt this coming year was not the time to start that program.
“It seems unfair to have some employees receiving nothing while others receive as much as 17 percent increases. We have all been hurt by the economy regardless of whether we make $20,000 or $100,000 per year,” she said. “Everyone’s living increases have increased while their pay has not. Over the past few years without COLAs, we have seen a change in our insurance benefits which has really equated to a decrease in pay.”
Donna Banks, accounting specialist I for the county, shared her appreciation for the county’s efforts to build up human infrastructure, but suggested a compromise.
“Although for overall employee recognition and morale, I respectfully suggest a compromise of a small salary adjustment for all employees and a 70 percent step toward meeting the midpoint with a commitment to meet the final 30 percent step in 2013-14,” Banks stated. “To be most effective, county employees need to work together as a team and not feel split or divided by circumstance. Commitment and going above and beyond to serve the citizens of Sampson County is enhanced if employees have a greater sense of self-worth and know they will be better able to pay their ever-increasing bills each month.”
Kay Stafford, who manages a DSS program with 15 employees, said the county employees are an investment for the county just as the county is an investment for the employees. Stafford said her unit has gone through much change over the last couple of years due to employees retiring and turnover. “Some have left and gone to neighboring counties for employment. Because of this, my unit has 9 of 15 employees with an average of less than three years experience in their ‘current position,’” stated Stafford, noting one of the eligibility stipulations of the career path. “Only one of my employees from my unit will receive a pay increase if the budget is adopted as proposed.”
School officials praise proposal
All of the eight written comments submitted to the county concerned the proposed Career Path Adjustments, however a few school officials praised the board during Monday’s public hearing on the proposed establishment of reserve accounts for facility maintenance.
A comprehensive study by the county’s Public Works and Utilities Department revealed more than $900,000 of deferred maintenance for the county’s facilities alone and concluded $500,000 should be saved each year toward long-term maintenance and upkeep of the buildings.
“If we can have a plan that looks down the road … I think Mr. Causey has laid that plan out,” said Dr. Ethan Lenker, superintendent for Sampson County Schools. “I think that would be a good thing for Sampson County. Organizing the future needs of Sampson County Schools as Mr. Causey has done in all the buildings, it’s nice to know that you can see what is coming down the road. Schools that are 12 years old, we are already replacing carpets. That half-cent sales tax money doesn’t cover a lot of carpets, it doesn’t cover the HVAC, certainly doesn’t cover the roofs.
New Sampson Community College president Dr. Paul Hutchins said the proposed budget provides some “sorely needed funds” for the college and urged the board to approve the plan.
“I want to compliment the proposed budget, Mr. Causey, for the vision of developing these capital funds for the two school systems, the county and Sampson Community College. I think it will demonstrate great vision by this commission to approve this budget so these long-term deferred maintenance issues can be addresses to meet the needs for the county, the school systems and the college.”
Larry Barnes, chairman of the SCC Board of Trustees, backed that up.
“I want to commend the county’s forward thinking on coming up with a facility maintenance upkeep plan,” he added. “Especially in these tight economic times, we want to thank you for what you’re doing. We hope you will see fit to look very closely at this facility maintenance upkeep plan as it will help our county maintain its buildings in the future.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.