Archived Opinion

County pay raises gone afoul

To the Editor:

In early 2008, Jackson County commissioners approved a study to be done of comparative public sector employees’ pay plans in southwestern North Carolina by a company called the Mercer Group Inc. out of Atlanta, Ga., at a cost of $25,000.

The Mercer Group study showed:

1. Current minimum pay ranges  are approximately 7 percent below market average.

2. Current midpoint pay ranges are approximately 12 percent above market average.

3. Current maximum pay ranges are approximately 25 percent above market average.

Therefore, because the minimum pay ranges/grades, actually called pay grades of the rank and file employees, were below norm, the Mercer study recommended the following (from page 11 of the report): “The new pay plans were developed to place the county in a more competitive position with minimum salaries” — not mid or max ranges.

The Mercer plan was to bring the low-end minimum pay range/grade employees up to parity to the market average in two stages during a two-year period. That never happened. A switch was made. Instead, the overpaid midpoint pay ranges/grades and the maximum pay ranges/grades that the Mercer study showed were already above the market average by 12 and 25 percent received the bulk of the raises, just the opposite of what Mercer recommended. How was it done? Several ways, but basically by not following the Mercer report.

The county has a “pay grade system.” It goes from grade one up to 40. Forty being the top grade where the manager sits. Twenty and above are usually reserved for supervisors and managerial personnel. Below grade 20 is where one would find the rank and file or “minimum salaried” employees that Mercer earmarked for competitive raises.

While grades are separated by 5 percent in pay, steps are separated by 2 percent. Raises in the 5 percents grades were not given. Instead, 2 percent step raises were given, similar to the 2 percent annual longevity pay employees receive for years served.

Here is where raises went wrong. The vast majority of employees above pay range grade 20 (those in midpoint and maximum range grades) received multiple pay steps above the minimum salaried employees who are below pay range grade 20.

Our outside independent accountants compilation analysis of the Jackson County Approved Payroll Budget for FY 2009-2010 showed 101 general employees received three or more pay steps increases, and the majority of these were above pay range-grade 20. Again they were the midpoint and maximum pay ranges of the Mercer report. We and the public believe that these parity raises went to the wrong group. The Mercer report backs that up.

How did the county manager get to pay step 29? The sheriff is at pay step 28 because he has been with the county for 28 years, earning every year he got. The manager will have 9 years in August of this year (2010). Who gave him 20 years of longevity? Himself? Is this 20-year gift an (E-RIP) Early Retirement Incentive Program to get him to leave?

There are too many examples of impropriety and mis-management during the years here to turn a blind eye to. Giving himself 20 years seniority is just one of them. Giving himself an 8-step pay increase when he only gave most of his minimum salaried employees a one-step raise is unconscionable.

Another problem with the raises is the extra unapproved money given to the manager above his 16 percent (8 step) raise. Somebody is doing bad math here. A 16 percent raise added to his old $123,163.04 salary would be an additional $19,706.08, bringing him to $142,869.12. Instead he is getting $21,141.90 on top of $123,163.04, bringing him to his present salary of $144,304.94. That’s a 17.12 percent increase, not the approved 16 percent, thus giving the manager an extra unauthorized $1,436. That’s wrong!

Which begs the question, who’s doing the math for Jackson County?

Also, in our accountant’s “Payroll Reconciliation” report, these “percentage overpayments” continued in all of the 101 employee positions that were reviewed. Again, most of the larger percentage overpayments went to the higher grades, i.e., department heads, etc.

Because of the discrepancies found already with the county’s payroll budget, we strongly recommend that all management employee raises more than the last two stages of the Mercer recommended implementation where found to be flawed with overpayments be totaled and divided equally among the minimum salaried employees, the ones Mercer showed to be below the market average.

Jackson County now has the unique distinction of having the highest paid ($144,304.94) per capita county manager and the highest paid ($16,189.75) per capita part-time county board chairman in North Carolina. (Source: N.C. School of Gov.; Payroll Budget)

The state governor makes $5,000 less a year ($139,001) than this manager, and she draws her salary from 100 counties, while this highest paid manager in this state draws his salary from only one county and a comparatively small one at that.

Is his job more important than the governor? If salary is an indicator, it must be.

Now adding insult to injury comes when the county chairman is pushing a staff administrative plan for additional raises for which he, you guessed it, and the manager would be in line for more pay. Ok, it’s only one step at 2 percent, and it will start at the bottom, right?

Doesn’t this manager and chairman know that 15 percent of Jackson County citizens are below the poverty line and that one in 10 of its citizens is still out of work, that other public sector employees haven’t had a salary raise in years and have suffered furrloughs and have taken cuts in pay? People are still losing their homes to foreclosures.

What’s being told in this report should have been told by the county, but the county doesn’t like to tell on itself, so there goes the open and honest transparency in government and the leaders exclaim to its citizens: “Why don’t you trust us?”

We’ll tell you why. You have a finance director, paid $118,890.20, the second highest paid employee in Jackson County and in the finance department. All three (minimum salaried) employees at pay grade 18 in the finance department only received a one-step (2 percent) increase. But the director, along with all other employees above grade 20, received four steps, and the “Benefits Specialist,” who apparently knows how to benefit, received a six-step or 12 percent increase.

Why were the peons held to only one step increase to the discrimination of the higher grades who received multiple steps? The Mercer study recommended competitive raises for these “minimum salaries” only. Didn’t the finance director know that? As a former public sector Labor-Management Consultant, I view this as management “stacking-the-deck” in management’s favor.

But how did the commissioners get duped into approving the raises for the wrong people?

Budgets come out of the finance department, and they look pretty generic until one starts to peel the onion. In this case, I believe the commissioners let the manager and the finance director peel the onion for them. Unfortunately, they didn’t peel as deep as we or our accountant did, and commissioners did not have full information from staff.

I would like to believe that if the majority of commissioners had full and accurate information the Mercer report would have gone as planned and approved and the public would not be in such a uproar today.

The Finance Director Darlene Fox and her boss, County Manager Ken Westmoreland, were the persons-in-charge of all salaries and/or raises. As the county’s two chief financial officers, they were instrumental in county employee raises and therefore have a responsibility to the taxpayers who are now paying for their salary raises and to explain what happened, how it happened and why.

We the people would respectfully ask our elected officials to conduct an open and honest review by an unattached outside independent consultant to conduct a complete review and summation of the latest county employee salary raises pursuant to the recommendations of the Mercer Group report. Then make the findings and results available to the public without cost. We have already paid.

I want to thank those who helped with this report and comments. Especially county employees who will definitely remain anonymous. All the letters to the editor and the editorials that kept bringing it to the public’s attention and those tenacious “gadflies” who stood alone at the commissioners podium expounding on the wrongs of the raises, the N.C. School of Government, the Sunshine Center of Elon University, the Mercer Group, the labor and employment council that came pro bono and for the calls that encouraged me to action when I wanted to go flyfishing.

Jim McCarthy

Jackson County Citizen Action Group

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