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Macon ponders raises and salary realignments for county workers

Proposed pay raises for county workers in Macon has prompted skepticism from at least two of the five county commissioners, who are asking if now is the right time for that.

The proposed pay raise would boost the salaries of all county government employees. The total plan would cost the county an estimated $750,000 per year and help all the county’s employees, more than 400 in all.

If passed, it would be the second raise for government employees in the past few years. In 2011, a 3 percent cost-of-living increase was given to the county’s employees.

However, a recent pay study by an outside consulting group found that county employees are, on average, underpaid by 20 percent when compared to similarly sized counties.

But newly-elected Commissioner Paul Higdon said although he wasn’t opposing the plan, he was unsure the raises were warranted in a struggling economy. He used employees in the private sector as a comparison.

“Be reminded that in the private sector, there are no raises. People in the private sectors are losing,” Higdon said. “I’m not saying, ‘Let’s not do this.’ This needs to be talked about.”

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The pay study was embarked on by the last board of commissioners in 2011 and was completed last summer. It had been more than 10 years since such a study was performed and was brought about after the county sheriff came before commissioners to complain about losing deputies to neighboring departments that had more competitive salaries.

The raises suggested by the study would bring the salaries of the county employees considered to have below average incomes up to a minimum threshold. Workers already making incomes above that threshold would instead receive 2 percent raises.

County Manager Jack Horton said 55 percent of the county’s employees are below the minimum threshold.

“On behalf of employees in the county, this is a fair thing to do,” Horton said in support of the raises.

Horton said the county isn’t trying to provide salaries on par with the larger Buncombe or Henderson counties but would like to make sure loyal and hard-working employees are recognized and paid fairly for their work.

Furthermore, the 3 percent cost of living increases given to employees in 2011, hardly makes up for the 10 percent cost of living increase during that same period, Horton said.

Horton said the county could fund the raises with money it saved recently by financing its outstanding debt at a lower interest rate, as well as expected upticks in sales tax collections. Last year, sales tax jumped 3 percent, Horton said.

Higdon applauded Horton for saving money on the refinancing move, but if those savings are simply funneled to other things like raises, the county hasn’t really “saved” anything. Higdon ran his campaign on promises to not raise taxes and to cut spending.

“You’re finding ways to save money,” Higdon said. “But as long as that’s allocated for something else you never really get ahead in the game of cutting overall spending.”

Commissioner Ron Haven also expressed his concerns over the raises and echoed his colleague’s concerns about giving public sector employees a boost while private sector workers may not be so fortunate.

“We have some of best county employees in country,” Haven said. “But what about the mechanic that fixes the car when it’s broken, or the plumber who fixes the pipes in your house?”

Haven was also concerned about the cycle of taking so-called savings and using them for more spending.

Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin said his prerogative was fulfilling the promise not to raise taxes and trusted Horton that the pay raises wouldn’t cause property taxes to go up.

Corbin said he is looking forward to the pay study report being delivered to the commissioners at their meeting in February by the consulting group.

Commissioner Jim Tate said he would support the raises.

“I personally do not have problem with this at all,” he said. “The county employees are our greatest asset in my opinion.”

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