County pay, benefits and the classification and efficiency of every job in the county could soon be studied toward reaching some form of resolution to an employee compensation problem that has lingered for years.
As part of monthly budget talks, employee pay was again brought to the table by the Sampson Board of Commissioners earlier this week. Following a discussion that involved many familiar topics that have conspired toward static employee pay — Sampson’s non-competitive salaries, its stagnant tax base, large school construction debt and the board’s desire to avoid raising taxes to make ends meet — many employees shared just how bleak the landscape has become.
In the end, the board directed county manager Ed Causey to look into costs for a pay plan and classifications and benefits study.
The board has discussed the issue at length in past budgets and, while a Career Path Adjustment Plan that would move employees up their pay grade based on performance was debated and a pay plan considered, a small one-time bonus at the end of the 2012-13 fiscal year was the only tangible result of those talks.
“We’ve got a lot of things that need to be looked at,” said Causey. “I don’t know how else to do it other than (a pay study). If we want to maintain a viable workforce and ensure a stable and productive future workforce, we need to ensure that we have established competitive salaries and also ensure that we have internal equitability as we move forward.”
A classification study would assist in grading positions according to the current demands and the work actually being done, while a benefits study may be the “most complex” portion of the evaluation. With health insurance rising at an accelerating rate, those costs, the budgetary impact on Sampson and how the county compares to others must be examined, Causey said.
“At present, it is generally thought that our benefits package is extremely favorable when compared to others. We need to evaluate to determine where we stand,” said Causey, who also noted the importance of looking at the liability posed by post-employment benefits. “We must determine what is sustainable in order to protect the long-term viability of the county and ensure that we can pay future benefits to our many valuable retired employees.”
Getting back to the pay plan, Causey said it is disconcerting that the county has no system in place for advancing its employees.
Expo Center director Ray Jordan, one of many employees who spoke at the budget session, said lack of advancement poses a huge and ongoing issue for the county in recruiting and retaining quality employees.
“I’ve been working with the county for 16 years, and I’m not even at the half midpoint of my pay scale and don’t know how to get there,” Jordan said. “More importantly, when I look at the people who work for me I don’t know how to move them up within the organization. There’s no way for anybody to advance and there’s no mechanism in place to reward employees for doing a good job.”
Health director Wanda Robinson echoed those sentiments, especially in regard to two longtime employees who have worked tirelessly for the county.
“I cannot do a thing for them because we don’t have a system in place to do that,” said Robinson. “Do consider those (studies). Just those people we could keep by giving them a little thank you at the end of the fiscal year would help a lot. It really would.”
“When you have an employee who has 10 years of service and their last paycheck is just a little over $100 more than the first one they ever got, there’s a problem there,” said tax administration Jim Johnson. “Morale is as low as I’ve ever seen it. It was a lot easier when I had myself to worry about, but now I’ve got 17 other individuals to worry about and I care about them all.”
Johnson recently had to submit a form allowing one of his employees to seek outside employment on the weekends at McDonald’s, a necessity for them to make ends meet.
“It breaks my hurt to even have to turn that form in, that the county is not looking after that individual,” said Johnson. “It’s a hurtful time. They’re struggling.”
Causey and managerial staff solicited input from employees at all levels, from department heads and supervisors to line staff and others.Many said they understood the board’s tough budgetary position, but the cost of living has gone up while employee pay has not.
“I know the county has been buried in debt by all the construction we have had,” said an employees. “I do not like taxes, however maybe you need to consider an increase to take care of the employees.”
“I understand you are in a tough position with all the budget shortfalls,” said another. “However, the employees of this county are enduring those same hardships with their own household budgets, without the ability to raise taxes to balance their respective budgets.”
Commissioner Jefferson Strickland said he was sick of talking about recession, and knew other people were too.
“We’ve been in it five years, and it begins to be a fatigue after awhile,” he said. “I’m aware of that and this Board of Commissioners is aware of that, and I think we all want to do something. (The recession) is still out there and it’s something we have to deal with.”
Commissioner Harry Parker said he was asked recently by someone how to get food stamps. That person worked for the county. “Something has to be done to help our employees,” he said.
‘It’s killing us’
Low county pay has been there for some time, county staff said. It was just compounded by the recession.
“I think what has exacerbated the situation is that, even before the economic downturn, we were behind,” said finance officer David Clack.
Commissioner Albert Kirby agreed that something needs to be done to help employees, but also relayed concerns from a section of the public, those working in the private sector, who take umbrage at county employees looking for more pay when their insurance costs are already covered.
“We are looking at it from both sides of the fence,” said Kirby. “I understand where you are coming from, but I want to make sure you understand that from the people who are not working in the public sector, that is what we’re hearing.”
A portion of the benefits package, notably insurance costs, are shouldered by employees in other counties. That is not the case in Sampson, where the county pays out $935 a month for each of its permanent employees. That cost rose nearly 50 percent, from $634, in 2012-13, an overall hike of more than $1.5 million for employee health benefits alone.
Causey said a more permanent solution will be crucial in the county’s sustainability.
Without adjustments, shouldering full insurance costs would drain county funds and leave department requests unfunded, employees without competitive pay and contribute to even deeper cuts down the line. That means modifications to the county’s pay system, concerns over which have “reached catastrophic proportions,” he has noted.
County staff requested a performance and pay study for employees in 2011 after a study completed in 2003 was never fully implemented. A tight budget put such a study on the backburner. Putting it on the backburner again would only make the situation worse in the future.
“It appears the challenges we have are progressing almost exponentially,” said Causey.
“We know we’re in a situation,” said board chairman Billy Lockamy, “we’re just trying to find money to make it work best for our county.”
Sampson County Detention Officer Linda Kittrell said she did not need a study to show she and others were underpaid.
“We are underpaid and we are the lowest-paying county there is,” said Kittrell. “People come to work at the Detention Center to get trained and they go somewhere else. We’re short-staffed, we’re overworked and this ain’t gonna stop. People are going to go where they can make more money. When they can go to Cumberland County tomorrow and make $7,000 more, they’re going.”
However, there are devoted employees who want to stay, “and it’s killing us,” she said.
“It’s really tough to be devoted and stay,” Kittrell remarked. “What’s the cost of that study for something we already know — we’re underpaid and overworked. It’s not just the Detention Center … it’s the deputies too, and detectives.”
And departments countywide, according to others. One employee comment submitted to the county got to the heart of the matter.
“Why waste thousands of dollars on a pay study if you don’t plan to do anything with the results? Every year for as long as I can remember, we have heard it’s been a bad year, no increases, or my favorite ‘do more with less,’” the employee stated. “We’ve been pushed to a point where we have no more to give. It’s easier to give 100 percent every day when you feel your efforts are appreciated. Some action needs to be taken by our present board to show they care about the county employees.”
Causey agreed that, if a study is paid for and conducted, it needed to be implemented. The county would be gauging the costs. A similar study by Brunswick County had a price tag of $41,000.
“If we embark upon this and don’t follow through on implementing it,” the county manager said, “we will be worse off than we were.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.