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Haywood commissioners ponder property tax hike to give county workers raises

fr haywoodbudgetHaywood County commissioners are contemplating a property tax increase to pay for raises for county employees.

Salaries for county workers were frozen for a few years during the recession — as was the case for many Americans. County workers have been getting a 2 percent raise a year for the past three years, but county commissioners say Haywood’s salaries have fallen behind that of other counties and must be brought up to industry standard.

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said some county employees have come to him in confidence recently and shared their dissatisfaction with the county’s pay scale.

“They really cooperated with the economy and downturn over a period of time,” Kirkpatrick said. “I somewhat feel like we have neglected them a little bit.”

Commissioner Mark Swanger agreed.

“Our employees have been excellent team players,” Swanger said.

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Swanger said salaries have been climbing in the private sector, and the county must eventually reconcile its recession mindset with workforce trends.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salaries in the state have indeed been going up. The average annual salary across all occupations in North Carolina — from low-paying jobs like reporters and dishwashers to high-flying lawyers and dentists — climbed from $39,420 to $43,280 over the past five years, between 2009 and 2014.

The idea of a major pay hike for county employees came up during informal budget work session in late April.

A clearly unscripted discussion played out as commissioners gingerly felt out where the others might stand.

County Manager Ira Dove was the first to bring up the issue — more or less as an FYI to commissioners.

The upshot: Haywood County employees make less than their counter parts in other counties and a few have left as a result, Dove said.

“If we are going to address this problem, we are going to need more money. So I am just putting it out there to ask for guidance,” Dove said.

Commissioners asked how much it would take to bring the county’s pay scale up to par.

“You are going to need somewhere in the neighborhood of $700,000,” Dove said.

“Will it fix it, or just be a Band-Aid?” Commissioner Mark Swanger said.

“Will it put us in the ballgame?” chimed in Commissioner Bill Upton, a former high school football coach.

“Would it stop the bleeding?” Commissioner Michael Sorrells added.

Swanger said he didn’t want to spend money on a pay scale adjustment that wasn’t a genuine solution.

“If we just Band-Aid it we are going to be back here again in two years,” Swanger said, asking how far $700,000 would go.

“It is a little more than a Band-Aid but not a complete fix. If we throw down a couple percent raise in certain positions — given the disparities in some of these positions — it isn’t a permanent fix,” Dove said. “A permanent fix is going to be significantly higher.”

How much higher was the question on everyone’s mind, but Dove couldn’t say on the spot.

“So we are looking at raising taxes?” Swanger said, partly as a statement, and partly in the form of a question. “I know that sounds like a dirty word but I don’t know what the other options are.”

 “You either raise taxes or you don’t fix the problem,” Dove answered.

“Is there a consensus we have to fix this problem?” Swanger asked the other commissioners point blank.

Kirkpatrick said he was ready to go to the mat to give employees raises.

“I was prepared to come in and say today that I am not going to support a budget that doesn’t pay employees what they deserve and that isn’t competitive with other counties. I’m just not. And that’s how I feel about it this year,” Kirkpatrick said. 

There’s usually there’s an extra pot of money to work with each new budget year — sales tax typically grows some year over year and new houses getting built add to the property tax rolls.

That new pot of money is a go-to source for anything and everything the county hopes to undertake, but quickly gets burned up on obligatory costs.

“What little bit of growth we’ve had in the budget has barely kept up with the increases in the cost-of-doing-business, like your higher insurance costs and your retirement costs,” Sorrells explained.

So there is little left over for things on the wish list — in this case employee raises.

Dove estimated new money in the county budget next year could be as much as $1.8 million, but it was all spoken for already on other budget needs, Dove said. 

“The $1.8 million is gone?” Swanger said.

“Yes, it is gone,” Dove said.

“So the only place to find it is where we find dollars,” Swanger said, referring presumably to county taxpayers.

Commissioners ultimately instructed Dove to come up with some sort of pay raise proposal, but what it entails — namely how much it might be and how much property taxes would have to be raised to cover it — won’t be revealed until Monday (May 18), when the proposed budget is presented at the commissioners meeting.


Keeping up with the Joneses

Macon and Jackson counties have dished out major raise packages to their employees in recent years.

Jackson County hiked employee salaries over a two-year period from 2008 to 2009, claiming its salaries were lower than its neighbors.

Macon County then hiked its employee salaries in 2013. The raises carried a total price tag of $750,000 annually.

Now, Haywood claims it is behind its peers.

“We are beginning to lose people to surrounding counties. Our ranking is not where it has been in the past,” Sorrells said. 

Certain departments are lower compared to industry standards than others. County employment records show three employees have left since March of this year — all to take higher-paying jobs with Buncombe County — in the environmental health and building inspections departments.

“I don’t want to be a training ground for other counties,” Upton said.

While county employees have been getting a modest 2 percent raise every year for three years, they have been considered “merit raises.”

In theory, only those who do a good job are rewarded with a raise. But in reality, almost every county worker gets the merit raise.

Still, there’s a downside. Since they aren’t across-the-board raises, the base salaries have remained stagnant. The merit raises are tied to the person, not the position, so new employees have to start at square one — at the base salary for their job rather than the salary the person before them was making due to accruing merit raises.

“Not only are we losing people but we are having trouble recruiting people,” Kathi McClure, the county’s human resource director, told commissioners.

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