County employee salaries will likely be a much-discussed issue during budget deliberations this year, with a Career Path Adjustment Plan still on the table amid a time that has seen a rash of retirees and difficulties retaining valuable workers.
There are challenges within many county departments — the Sheriff’s Office, Health Department and others among them — to retain employees when surrounding counties can offer a larger salary for the same or similar positions. The Board of Commissioners heard presentations this week detailing the hardships for departments.
During the third and final day of the session Wednesday, county manager Ed Causey brought the Career Path plan back to commissioners for discussion. No decisions were made, but more discussion will take place in the coming months.
“I recognize the challenges the board is facing, but we have a lot of employees that are just hurting,” said Causey. “I do think at some point in time the board is going to have to decide how it’s going to address this. I have actually had a number of employees make the comment that they recognize the economy and the challenges, but they would just like to have some hope that a fix is coming.”
Under the Career Path Adjustment system, when an “above-average” employee serves three years in their current position, the salary is increased one-half the distance from the current salary to the mid-point of the pay grade. After five years, the salary goes to the mid-point. The career path allows for employees to progress within the pay grade, however the actual pay raises would be subject to the annual approval of the board.
The county initially budgeted $301,274 for the Career Path for the 2012-13 budget year, covering all employees with at least three years of service as of Jan. 1, 2013. The actual cost, with above-average employee evaluations tallied, was said to be $160,825 for January through June 2013.
Ultimately, however, the board held off on the Career Path in favor of an across-the-board, one-time bonus.
That bonus took effect last month at a county cost of $121,610 for January-June. The raise gave employees a 1 percent hike for those with less than five years experience; 1.5 percent to those with less than 10; 2 percent to those with less than 15 years; and 2.5 percent to those with more than 15 years of service.
Causey said the effect of the raise only acted to offset other factors. When payroll taxes went up 2 percent in January, the pay bump was not even enough to offset that loss for a majority of employees. Factoring challenges in health insurance and cost of living over time, Causey said, “I think the stress level on our employees is increasing at a fairly rapid rate.”
Finance officer David Clack said he was one who was able to get a 2.5 percent, like many long-time employees.
“We found very few, if any, that actually recognized taking home more money even if they got a 2.5 percent increase,” said Clack. “Most everybody in finance got 2.5 percent, but I don’t think anybody actually took home more money.”
Commissioner Jarvis McLamb said the suffering does not just occur in county government.
“Get away from the county government and get out in the country or the city, you can hear some bad stories from people out there,” said McLamb. “It’s not just in county government do we have people that are suffering badly, as much or moreso than here.”
McLamb then echoed some of the same figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from March 2011, numbers he shared last year with the board that detailed access to health care and wages from the private sector as compared to the public state and local governments.
“It looks as though if you have a job with the state or local government, it is a lot better on average than it is with people who are in the private sector,” said McLamb. “I do feel we need to do something about the Career Path, but as far as going all the way, I have not made my mind on that.”
“My biggest concern was the manner in which you determined the raise,” added Commissioner Albert Kirby, alluding to the evaluations. “I wanted to take away any arbitrariness.”
Kirby also expounded on McLamb’s comments and pointed to the economy as a whole.
“I don’t know if anybody can argue with the fact that if you have a job in government here it’s a lot better than not having one at all. Does that make it any easier? Of course it doesn’t, but the ultimate problem is where do you get the money to pay for it?” Kirby said. “I’m at a dilemma. I share in the frustration, because I think the employees ought to get something. What can we afford to do?”
Chairman Billy Lockamy said he was “really concerned” about other surrounding counties being able to pay more to their employees than Sampson, notably in the Health Department. Duplin, Brunswick and Cumberland counties were some that were well ahead of Sampson, but Lockamy pointed to Bladen County also being among them.
“It was shocking to see how they could pay more in salaries, and they’ve got less money than we have,” Lockamy noted.
Clack said debt service was a big reason why, with Bladen not having in excess of $10 million in annual debt service that Sampson does. Current school expense in Bladen was also much lower compared to Sampson, at $5.5 million compared to $9.5 million, while the debt load just for schools is $1.1 million in Bladen compared to Sampson’s $7 million, Clack noted.
County staff said low health care deductibles and family coverage has been a feather in Sampson’s cap where overall pay has fallen short. The lack of a solid succession plan has also hurt tremendously, assistant county manager Susan Holder said.
“Those health care benefits are the one thing that allowed you to retain employees; it’s certainly not the salaries,” said Holder. “The absence of a salary and pay plan that sets forth the promise of higher salaries the longer you work here — that’s a succession plan in most counties. The trained people stay, because they know they’ll have a higher range of pay. Sampson County has no succession plan. You have a high percentage of your high-level supervisors and department heads that will be gone in a few years.”
Commissioner Jefferson Strickland said his perception of Sampson County and the people was that they accept themselves as at least average in the state, “maybe a little better than average. Likewise, citizens expect at least average or better services, he noted.
“I guess in that same mind,” Causey said, “we want our employees to be paid the average of what public sector employees are paid for county government.”
Causey said a plan such as the Career Path would allow for a status quo to be in effect, just as it is in other counties. Some employees have praised the plan for allowing incentives for them to achieve their best. Others raised concerns that some will be compensated handsomely, while others receive a minimal raise or are left out completely.
“All you would be talking about is the routine increases somebody had earned because of time or performance. I think that would be something that could probably be absorbed in your budget, because that would just be a part of doing business. That is where we are behind,” Causey said. “Quite frankly, I don’t think I fully understood that our employees didn’t understand that is how our system was designed to work at the beginning.”
Strickland said that the “doing more with less” philosophy that has been well in effect for the past four years amid the recession does have a breaking point. “At some point in time, I think we have to guard against is where you break the plane and start providing less with less,” said Strickland.
“I think you’re there,” Causey replied. “You can maintain your 78 cent tax rate, you can even cut it down to 50 if you want to. At some point, you’re going to pare government down to the tax rate.”
And pare down valuable employees with it, county staff said.
Holder pointed to the large number of recent county retirees, noting that from January 2012 to January 2013, the Board of Commissioners recognized 26 retirees for their years of service.
“Those 26 employees represented 521 years of service,” Holder said. “You can’t buy that back. We have no plan for holding onto employees, unless we show them some promise that the longer you stay here, the more promise you have of earning a higher wage.”
Otherwise, those trained people will leave and the untrained employee that takes their place will demand more time from the existing employees who are already doing more with less. As the economy improves, Holder said citing a study, more people will retire or “job-hop” to the highest bidder where they were previously uncertain of giving up their jobs during the recession.
“We have a problem that is going to repeat itself and get worse instead of better,” said Holder, “unless we think about succession planning.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.