County employees saw their salaries augmented by as much as 40 percent, with annual salary increases for individual employees ranging between several hundred dollars to more than $9,000. One Parks and Recreation building attendant saw his yearly pay jump from about $19,000 to $26,000, while the jail administrator saw his increase from about $34,000 to more than $43,000.
“There are certainly people somewhere who are getting a heck of a raise,” said Commissioner Ron Haven, who voted against the implementing the pay raises for fiscal reasons. “But I will be commissioner for the people of Macon County, and I feel like I am standing strong to save everyone’s tax dollars.”
In all, the entire pay package will cost the county an additional $754,000 in salaries per year. The increases took effect immediately following the 3-2 vote by commissioners in April, costing the county an extra $150,000 for the remainder of the current fiscal year and keeping the issue out of the ongoing budget talks.
Haven felt like the details on who was getting what in the new pay plan was not made readily available to commissioners before the vote, leaving the opposition — and the public — in the dark. Haven said he requested a numerated list of the proposed raises from County Manager Jack Horton, but the document was not handed over to him.
“We begged to see it beforehand, and he would not give it to us,” Haven said.
The Smoky Mountain News made a similar public records request to county staff to release the new payroll in early April, directly following the vote. The request for employee’s job titles and their new salaries was not fulfilled until last week.
Paul Higdon, who opposed the salary increases alongside Haven, said a delay like that is unacceptable for an agency funded by taxpayer money. Higdon had also requested similar records and was not provided them prior to the vote.
“Because the government runs off of taxpayer dollars, it should be completely open and completely transparent,” Higdon said. “It should be revealed, and it should be readily available.”
In mid-April, in a follow-up email to the newspaper’s public record’s request, Horton stated that individual employee’s wages had not been updated at that time and thus was not available. However, he applauded commissioners for approving the plan.
“We have many dedicated and devoted public servants working for our county, and it seems that they are all too often taken for granted for the job they do,” Horton wrote in the email. “I am proud of them and the Board of Commissioners for approving the new classification and pay plan.”
The new wages were based on a study performed by Springsted, a consulting company hired by the county. The results of the study, comparing Macon County’s public sector salaries with other counties across the state, showed a majority of county employees were underpaid. It had been more than a decade since the county had undertaken such a study.
The plan bumps every county employee up to a new, recommended minimum, and those already above the new minimum received a 2 percent raise. The 2 percent raise was justified as a way to keep the pay scale equitable after some employees received large increases.
But for some employees already at the top of the county payroll charts, a 2 percent raise was more substantial than the boost given those below the new minimum standard.
Horton, the highest paid county employee, received a $2,600 raise to bring his annual salary up to more than $136,000. His increase was more than the amount given to county maintenance workers making just more than $20,000 annually prior to the new pay hikes.
However, county officials contended that a majority of the raises went to the employees at the bottom of the pay rungs. This is evidenced by the fact that the 20 lowest-paid county employees received a collective $92,000 or so in raises while the raises given to the top 20 paid county employees amounted to about $32,000.
But what the figures also point to is a disparity between the higher and lower paid employees that went uncorrected for years. The study concluded that more than half of all employees were below the competitive average salaries of their counterparts at other county posts in the state. Most of the reportedly underpaid employees were found at the mid-and lower levels of the pay scale.
Higdon questioned how the county allowed their employee salaries to become so out of whack. He said someone may have been sleeping at the wheel.
“If our pay scale was that far out of balance, then somebody was not doing their job,” Higdon said. “Why has nobody been watching and adjusting and observing?”
Many in the county pointed to the fact that during the years and through the recession, job descriptions were altered without the additional responsibilities being reflected in the employees’ salaries. Also, any plans for widespread wage adjustments were put on hold when the recession hit.
Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin, who supported the raises, said the low wages of some of the county employees were unconscionable and deserved to be increased.
“They were significantly underpaid,” Corbin said. “There’s somewhat of an ethical obligation — a worker is worthy of his pay.”
Corbin said the increases probably should have been implemented a while ago — the pay study was completed last summer.
Yet the timing, only months before the county entered into a rocky budget process, begs comparison with the county’s other funding requests. Most notably, Macon County Schools had requested an additional $1.3 million from county commissioners for next fiscal year to avoid cuts to teacher positions and school programs.
Horton initially offered an extra $200,000 to help the schools. But, as the county and school try to reconcile the two disparate numbers, it’s hard not to notice the $750,000 in raises commissioners approved for county employees.
Nevertheless, Corbin asserts they are separate from each other and each needed to be considered independently.
“The pay thing was a completely different issue,” Corbin said. “To have done nothing would have continued to be underpaying people who were well below their pay scale.”