Iredell commissioners put county pay raises on back burner

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Posted: Monday, February 18, 2013 3:56 pm

Like most workers in the United States over the past half-decade or so, Iredell County government workers have settled into accepting the notion that the phrase “annual pay raise” has become something of an anachronism.

And, indeed, words to that effect were spoken at the board of commissioners meeting this weekend when options for salary bumps or other pay hikes were examined and talk about actually adopting one of those options fizzled out.

“The days of across-the-board pay increases are gone,” said Commissioner Ken Robertson during the debate on the topic at the board’s winter planning retreat Saturday. “And I think they are gone for good. Large companies — and I would say the county is a ‘large company’ — are putting caps on pay structures that actually commit them to higher pay in the future.”

Last year, most of county’s more than 900 employees received a pay bonus of between 1 and 2 percent depending on their performance evaluations.

As was explained during the meeting, a bonus differs from an actual pay raise in that the former is a one-time deal. A person, for example, who had a $10,000 salary and earned a 2 percent bonus was given $200 but that person’s salary did not change. Had the county offered raises instead of bonuses last year, that person would now be earning $10,200 every year thereafter.

However, the county did not simply give the bonuses in a one-lump payment but rather included the added pay in employees’ semiweekly paychecks. That means that when the bonus period ends sometime this year, the effect will be that of a pay reduction.

But, as County Manager Ron Smith noted, most county workers will barely notice the cut because the increase from the bonus itself was hardly detectable.

Iredell’s average county government employee earns just less than $40,000 year. The average increase in their take-home pay with the bonus mixed in was a little more than $20 per paycheck, or about $525 over the course of the year.

“We probably should have given them the bonus at one time,” Robertson said in examining the numbers.

Smith presented the commissioners with four options but only two of them concerned the county’s entire workforce. They were: make last year’s bonuses permanent; and repeat last year’s bonuses again.

But while no action was taken on the matter, commissioners were not in favor of either one of those options but voiced preference for a plan involving “step increases” that involves moving certain employees to higher pay-grades within the range of their fields of expertise.

One problem addressed during the debate on the salaries and increases was one of retention and recruitment.

Smith explained that certain jobs come with what are essentially start-up costs on things that range from training and familiarization to the specifics of a job to the purchase of uniforms.

County Human Resources Director Sandra Gregory said that if a balance isn’t found on the right pay for a particular job, Iredell becomes “a training ground” for employees who take what they’ve learned in the county to a place that pays more.

Board Chairman Steve Johnson said, at any rate, that pay increases cannot be considered a top priority when the economy is still iffy and the county faces other major expenditures in the near future such as the possible construction of a new jail and purchase of needed Emergency Medical Services equipment.

“Our top priority is finding a way to house those prisoners and get the ambulances we need,” he said. “The rest is all contingent on what kind of available funds we have.”