County seeks more egalitarian, competitive compensation

One major change recommended was a transition toward merit pay. Chair Brownie Newman thought it was a good idea, noting it works to the benefit of the private sector, but it is not a common practice in the public sector. Commissioner Al Whitesides said he came from an industry run with merit pay on steroids. He said it was a practice that had to be executed fairly across all departments after serious training. Clear guidelines had to be established to avoid complaints about unjust subjectivity. Wood said one jurisdiction in which he recently worked had its human resources director reading every single employee evaluation, requesting redos whenever issues arose. Berkley said merit-based pay is growing in popularity with government organizations, some choosing to phase it in over five years.

Another significant recommendation, said Berkley, was clarifying pay grades and criteria for raises. As the ongoing federal investigation of former county leadership unfolds, more funky pay practices that included nepotism and improper, unilateral employee compensation decisions are being discovered. Even without the scandalous stories, county employees surveyed by the consultants were unsure about what they needed to do to get more money.

Berkley compared the county to 18 similar government organizations with 85 benchmarks and recommended expanding the distribution of pay. Salaries and wages would generally increase, but the number of employees in the highest-paid brackets would drastically decrease; 85.1% would be in the first and second quartiles, as opposed to 63.9% now. Additionally, salaries of the highest-paid employees would be frozen, Berkley noting the freeze was an admission that those positions were overpaid. Affected employees would not even get a cost of living adjustment, Wood noting COLAs, like longevity pay, represented compensation philosophies in opposition to merit-based raises.

A chart of the new pay grades was posted on a PowerPoint slide. Berkley said, should the commissioners adopt the recommendations, employee pay would be brought into conformity by giving persons earning below the new minima a one-time adjustment. Seventy-four employees would be impacted at a total cost to the county of $127,731. Benefits were another matter. Questioning the numbers on the screen, Frost said she thought the county was going to pay a living wage. Personnel in pay grades 50-60, according to the chart, were earning below $30,000. Staff replied the county currently had no positions below grade 56, which had a range of $24,981-$41,218.

Wood couldn’t emphasize enough that the commissioners would vote on a formal plan later, and that any changes would require a resolution. He suspected it would be 15-27 months before any new pay policy would go into effect. The county would first have to hire new key personnel. He, and others, did not think it was appropriate for interim leadership to be making such high-level, high-impact decisions. Wood, however, counseled that when the county does convert to merit-based pay, it should have a pool of money set aside for divvying up, and not distribute raises on employee anniversaries, because in some places, the money runs out before everybody gets his turn.

Throughout the meeting, Frost kept finding opportunities to point out specifics of how the former-former county manager abused the public trust. She asked at the end of the meeting if the county’s lowest-paid employees ever received their promised 1.5% raise. She was told they did, albeit one year later. Newman requested more information on living wage options, and Commissioner Mike Fryar said he was used to employing people in the private sector, where he couldn’t run to taxpayers whenever funds ran short.

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