On Tuesday night, the Macon County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the final 2011-2012 budget, which includes the first pay raises county employees have seen since 2008. The pay raises include a three percent salary increase for all county employees plus an additional two percent increase for all deputies of the Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff Robert Holland, who attended the meeting along with a contingent of some 15 deputies who were there to support him, said he was disappointed by the five percent increase, which fell significantly short of his request. “I’m not happy,” said Holland, responding to the commissioners announcement that they would not be able to fund the requested increases in this year’s budget. “I’m very disappointed by the decision that you all as a board have made.”
At a recent meeting of the board to discuss the budget, Holland asserted that the salaries of deputies in his department are not competitive with those of other departments in the region. He noted that the county continually risks the investment it makes in new deputies by not offering competitive salaries. According to Holland, the county often invests as much as $20,000 in the training of new deputies, who may then choose to transfer to other departments offering better compensation.
The increases requested by Holland varied from officer to officer, depending on a number of factors, including levels of certification and experience. Sheriff’s attorney Brian Welch said it was difficult to measure exactly how far short the commissioners’ five percent increase fell from the request, but he said it was in most cases significantly lower.
Holland’s request was limited to deputies of the department and did not apply to administrative staff of the Sheriff's Office, or to Sheriff Holland or to the Sheriff’s Attorney.
“How do you look at these officers and their families and their children and say that it’s okay for an officer doing [their] job, an officer with the same responsibilities as [them], is making $6,000 to $8,000 more a year?” – Sheriff Robert Holland
On Tuesday, Holland noted that compensation for his officers is not even competitive with other law enforcement agencies in the county’s municipalities. “How do you look at these officers and their families and their children and say that it’s okay for an officer doing [their] job, an officer with the same responsibilities as [them], is making $6,000 to $8,000 more a year?” he asked the commissioners.
Giving the example of one senior officer in his department, Holland noted that the officer will be able to retire in the next four years. “He’ll be the first county deputy to ever be able to retire with 30 years of law enforcement, and it’s atrocious what he makes,” said Holland, adding that officers with much less experience in other departments receive much higher compensation.
Commissioner Ronnie Beale, the board’s liaison to the Sheriff’s Office, said that the commission had considered the issue of raises for the officers extensively before coming to the decision to go with the five percent increase instead. He said that the particular budget restraints, as well as unknowns about what the county may have to absorb in the coming year, precluded approving the Sheriff’s request.
“We wanted to bring up these salaries a level,” said Beale, “but it’s a tough budget to do this in ... It was my hope that we could work out a way to give [more to] our deputies who are out there by themselves. ... I’m very proud of our deputies and what they do every day for the people, and I think they should be justly compensated,” he said.
Beale added that Holland’s request was not unreasonable. “In my opinion, when you put on a bullet-proof vest, you are in a different category,” Beale remarked. “I know that’s not where we want to be in comparison [with other counties],” he said of the five percent increase.
The board did announce, however, that they intended to initiate a countywide study of the pay rate for employees, and that in six months it hoped to revisit the issue of deputy salaries. “What we want to do is move you guys a little bit closer to where you need to be, but we need to be able to have a non-arbitrary way to measure things, and that’s what we’re moving toward,” said commission chairman Brian McClellan.
“Is this as much as they deserve? No, it’s not,” said Commissioner Bob Kuppers. “But I think that within the constraints of the economy that we’re in and the budget that we’re under, it’s the best we can do. This is just one of those things that we’re not doing, that we’d like to be doing, because of budget constraints.”
While disappointed, Holland thanked the board members for doing what they could, noting that the pay structure for deputies in the department had been set in the past well before any of the current members of the board began serving.
Holland thanked his deputies for continuing to serve the county faithfully despite their salaries. To the board, he added, “They didn’t come into this job expecting to ever get what they actually, 100 percent, deserve.”
Budget passes with few alterations
The countywide three percent pay increase, which was included in the county manager’s initial budget proposal, adds approximately $450,000 to the budget. Before a final vote on the budget was taken on Tuesday, county finance officer Evelyn Southard reviewed the few amendments which had been agreed upon in the recent budget sessions.
The $42.4 million budget will maintain a property tax rate in the county of 27.9 cents per $100, except for in the Nantahala fire district, where it will be increased by half a cent to help fund the opening of a new substation.
Among the adjustments made to the budget were amendments to revenue in the Department of Public Health due to state changes in the how medicare reimbursements are calculated. In addition, funding was appropriated for the adult dental services in the county. In all, approximately $96,000 additional revenue was appropriated from the county fund balance for the budget.