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Employee pay at center of Jackson County budget debate

With the Jackson County budget a few short weeks from completion, a split emerged among commissioners concerning raises for county workers.

Last week Commissioners Tom Massie, William Shelton and Mark Jones voted to eliminate employee raises in the upcoming budget and save the county $294,000.

Both Chairman Brian McMahan and Commissioner Joe Cowan opposed the measure.

McMahan isn’t happy with the decision, which he sees as abandoning an employee compensation system the board has already paid dearly for implementing.

Last year, the board commissioned a salary study for all county positions. The study recommended big raises for those already in the highest paid county positions. Commissioners enacted the raises but at a high political price.

“We took a lot of criticism about salary increases and the Mercer Study, and for us not to stay with the system was just backing up,” McMahan said.

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Nonetheless, Massie proposed cutting step raises for 400 employees, an automatic increase of 2 percent of their annual salary.

Massie suggested the cuts in a budget work session last week. There have been more than a dozen budget work sessions in recent months, but last week was the first mention of cutting employee raises.

Massie said few workers are getting raises these days. State employees, school employees and the employees of surrounding counties haven’t gotten increases for two years, he said.

“We’ve bucked the trend the past couple of years, but this year just isn’t the year to raise salaries,” Massie said.

Massie said he doesn’t believe the commissioners should have to insulate the county’s workers from the economic troubles everyone else is feeling.

McMahan countered that a major portion of the money saved through the cuts is merely being reapportioned to other programs rather than used to lower taxes. Indeed, $112,621 is set to go back into the community in the form of contributions to the libraries and resources like the Community Table and the Jackson County Animal Shelter. Another $50,000 was placed back into the county’s contingency fund, and more than $200,000 will be set aside for future capital projects.

At a public hearing on the budget, the county heard from several community organizations requesting financial support.

For McMahan, the step increases are part of a larger employee compensation system that he said has helped the county attract and retain quality workers. He also objected to the late timing of the decision.

“If we were going to do this, it should have been brought up in January so the employees could plan for it,” McMahan said.

County employees had their insurance benefits changed this year, and their annual deductible was raised from $500 to $1,250.

The debate over the step increases was the one hot point in what has been a relatively amicable budget process.

The budget drafted by County Manager Ken Westmoreland called for a 9 percent overall reduction from last year. But the decrease was achieved primarily by leaving vacant positions unfilled, reducing capital expenditure outlays, and nickel and diming across the departments.

Jackson County has not had to cut services or jobs this year.

The commissioners also designated $80,000 for commercial investment in the county’s economic development fund, a signal that the county intends to get its Economic Development Commission back into action after years of controversy paralyzed it.

The county’s total budget in its most recent form weighs in at $66.6 million.

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