Columns » Max Brantley

County gold rush

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The Pulaski County Quorum Court is weighing up to 9 percent in pay increases for themselves and the other 1,200 or so county employees.

The timing isn't good. Sales tax revenues are down and property values are stagnant. Most businesses and governments are cutting jobs and pay.

And, still, the Quorum Court is considering a 4 percent bonus for itself and other employees now and then a pay raise of up to 5 percent for itself and others at the first of next year. Total cost could be $2.5 million.

This is on the heels of an 8 percent pay boost for county employees in 2008 — the sum of a 5 percent pay raise and a 3 percent bonus. Give them 4 percent this year and 5 percent to start 2010 and you're looking at 17 percent in pay enhancements over a 24-month period.

The argument is that county employees suffered through some lean years. They got a 4 percent raise in 2005, nothing in 2006, 3 percent in 2007 and 8 percent in 2008. County employees do enjoy good benefits — 12 days of paid sick leave every year, 10 days of paid vacation after six months on the job, 11 paid holidays and FREE health insurance (employee only), a tax-free benefit worth about $5,000.

Supporters of the pay raise say employees have been working extra hard to make up for vacancies. But the vacancies tend to be clustered in certain areas. About half are at the sheriff's office and jail. So we reward overworked jailers and deputies by giving elected, part-time Quorum Court members the same pay raise? Why not raise jailer pay significantly? Or hire more jailers? And, better still, why not keep accumulating cash to open more jail beds?

It seems cold to oppose a pay increase. The chief deputy clerk complains that average pay in his office is only $28,500. That's not a king's ransom. Federal statistics show, however, that it's in line with pay for similar jobs in the metro area. It's almost the minimum state starting pay for certified public school teachers. It's more, cough, than many newspaper reporters make. But job security is worth something. Ask a laid-off reporter.

There's little evidence of significant loss of county employees to other businesses — a nurse or two at the jail, maybe, and the occasional skilled office worker. There's little evidence either, that the county has given any thought to whether it has created too many jobs to begin with (law enforcement is an obvious exception). It might be that county employees are underpaid. But more evidence is needed. We do know the county is short-changing vital areas. Its leaders say, basically, that taxpayers can afford bonuses but not zoning or more jailers and patrol deputies.

Justice of the Peace Phil Stowers, a fiscally conservative Republican, is on target. He's open to a salary increase. “I am generally supportive of reasonable and fact-based cost of living raises,” he told me. “They allow us to attract and retain a stable workforce. What is being proposed is more than $1 million dollars in non-incentive based, one time bonuses. I believe if we pass this we will be found derelict in our duty in the court of public opinion…”

Raising pay twice in three months on a one-size-fits-all basis, beginning with elected officials, is — along with deficit spending and poor services — the sort of thing that has made voters cold historically to county tax increases. Public opinion does count.

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