Cobb government employees could receive higher salaries if county commissioners follow through on a consultant’s recommendation to amend the current pay plan. But the most expensive option to increase employee pay has been estimated at $20.4 million, which would require the county to find a funding source to sustain the increased impact to the budget.

Chip King with the Archer Group presented to commissioners at Tuesday’s commission work session results of his firm’s classification and compensation study, which examined the state of the county’s pay system. County officials first moved forward on pursuing such a study in November 2013, approving the $326,420 study with Archer Group in April 2014.

The study examined about 4,200 full-time and 760 part-time employees across county government and about 580 different job classifications to determine if pay grades and job classifications were equitable within the county, and if each classification’s pay range was competitive compared to other governments. Cobb’s jobs and pay rates were compared to a number of metro Atlanta governments, from the cities of Atlanta, Marietta and Smyrna to Clayton, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties. It also compared Cobb to several governments in five Southern states.

“What we are seeing in the market right now is your peer organizations, here in metropolitan Atlanta, a lot of them are looking pretty aggressively at an across-the-board (pay) increase in this upcoming fiscal year, or they’ve recently given one in the last month or two,” King said. “That might be something for you all to consider.”

The firm’s proposed pay plan would set 36 pay grades across the county government, but commissioners would have to determine what changes they would want to make to employees’ salaries. Choosing to raise employee pay to the minimum amount of each position’s pay range, for example, would cost $6.3 million but would only impact 22 percent of the county’s workforce. Moving employee salaries into their respective salary ranges would cost $12.8 million, though only 44 percent of the workforce would receive a pay increase under such a plan.

The most expensive option would see all salaries put into the pay ranges as well as across-the-board pay increases, which would ensure that every employee receives an increase, but the cost of such a plan has been estimated at $20.4 million.

Cobb has set aside $10 million to fund pay increases recommended by the study, but the one-time funds would only affect the county’s 2017 budget; the county would have to find funding to maintain the salary increase.

Commissioner Bob Weatherford said he was leaning toward the option of placing employees into their salary ranges.

“I was a little disappointed that (that option) was more than we set aside, because I thought we had guesstimated it pretty well,” Weatherford said, adding that he has asked county staff members to calculate a 1-percent, across-the-board raise with that option coupled with the 3 percent merit raises already approved by commissioners.

Weatherford said he was not opposed to considering a millage increase to fund the salary increase, adding that while commissioners were able to roll the millage back this year, raising it may be needed to get the county back to pre-recession staffing levels.

“We’ve got a lot of people that we lose, not just in public safety, but it could be someone with a CDL license, that we lose to DeKalb of Fulton because they get X number of dollars per hour,” Weatherford said. “I want to keep people that we have because that’s brain trust that we have in this county — if they start leaving after they’ve been here 10 years for a little bit more money because we’re not competitive, that costs a lot more in the long run.”

Commissioner JoAnn Birrell said she had questions coming out of Tuesday’s presentation, but said making no changes to employee salaries was not an option for her.

“I think it’s imperative that we bring everybody up to the minimum level initially. I’d like to see where we are with that and what additional stuff, some of the additional recommendations that weren’t incorporated into that amount, that we can do over and above that,” Birrell said. “The thing that we have to be careful of is it’s got to be sustainable — the $10 million we have set aside is to cover the implementation for our 12-month period, so when we do budgets next year, we’ll have to make that sustainable and carry it over to the 2018 budget.”

Commissioner Bob Ott said he, too, wanted to see an increase for employees.

“Since there’s one-time money, $10 million set aside, before I would want to go full-bore with the big expense, I would want to make sure I know how we were going to pay for it,” he said. “I think I’d be more for a gradual ramp-up to maybe some of the different components.”

Chairman Tim Lee said the direction he heads on the pay issue will depend on where his fellow commissioners wish to go with it.

“Before I put together my thoughts, I’m going to hear what my district commissioners have to say since they’re the ones that are going to have to deal with the implementation, not only next year but in 2018 because it’s quite a significant increase,” he said.

PROPOSED BUDGET OFFICIALLY PRESENTED

The work session also saw county officials present Lee’s proposed fiscal 2017 budget. The more than $383 million balanced general fund budget is nearly 9.3 percent higher the adopted fiscal 2016 budget of $351 million, which runs through Sept. 30 but does not close out until December or January.

Based on the current millage rate of 6.66 mills, Lee has said the budget is “basically a continuation budget,” with no new initiatives being proposed by him as part of an effort to not bind his successor or other county leaders. Lee’s term as chairman ends in December and he will be succeeded by Mike Boyce, who defeated him in last month’s runoff election.

“The budget is balanced, which is what I’m required to produce,” Lee said during Tuesday’s presentation. “It’s quite possible that this budget might’ve looked different had my future been heading in a different direction, but since I will not be here as of Jan. 1, I felt it was important that I present a balanced budget based on ’16 with those items that we must incorporate in ’17, and leave it up to the remaining four bodies that are up here who will be up here and have to push the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ button.”

The information in Lee’s budget also includes requests made by several county departments to raise their operating and capital funding, as well as funding asks made by county leaders and commissioners. In addition to listing the current budgets and increased amounts needed to fund those requests, the budget document also lists the calculated millage increases needed to fund the budget add-ons should commissioners wish to consider raising the millage to pay for the additional spending.

Lee said that in addition to “conservative, cautious budget growth,” the budget assumes an unchanged general fund millage rate of 6.66 mills.

That millage rate was an issue of Commissioner Lisa Cupid, who said the rate was significantly lower than 2015’s rate of 7.12 mills.

Commissioners last month unanimously approved the lower 2016 millage of 6.66 mills. Cupid said that while part of her support for the lower rate was due to her “confidence in speaking with the chairman,” that support was tempered with concern.

“With this significant reduction, I’m very concerned about our ability to accommodate what I believe are not just future needs, but current needs with the current millage that’s being presented,” Cupid said.

Commissioners took no action on Lee’s budget, which was only presented as an informational item at their work session. It is set to be considered at commissioners’ Sept. 27 meeting.

The public will be able to voice their concerns on the budget during hearings set for 9 a.m. Sept. 13 and 7 p.m. Sept. 27.

Follow Jon Gargis on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JonGargis.

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