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Athens News Matters: ACC Commissioners hear presentation on staff raises

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Athens-Clarke County Commissioners talked about the possibility of a significant raise for many county employees at their work session on Tuesday.

The process of developing the county’s budget for the next fiscal year is underway, and part of that process is a look at wages for county staff. The county’s Human Resources department is asking lawmakers to budget about $5.17 million more for salaries next year, which would allow money for merit pay and a 7% market-based cost of living raise.

In the work session, District 8 Commissioner Carol Myers broke down the proposal.

"Employees who are presently working would all get a 7 percent raise," Myers said. "And many would get 8 or 9 percent, depending on their performance."

That $5.17 million figure also includes a bump to the base pay for many positions, which, County Manager Blaine Williams said would make ACC more competitive in attracting new employees.

"If you just give [cost of living] and performance [raises], then we really haven't changed the market posture of the government, as far as our salaries," Williams told commissioners.

Public safety employees, like law enforcement and firefighters are covered under a different pay structure, and county HR is recommending a $2.3 million package to cover raises for those workers.

Three ways county employees get raises

There are three different methods by which county employees can get a raise. Pay table adjustments are applied to open positions with ACC, and are designed to keep government salaries competitive with those of other local governments. Market adjustments work much like cost of living adjustments, and are applied to current ACC employees. ACC employees can also earn merit pay, based on the results of their employee evaluations. County HR director Jeff Hale told commissioners that the vast majority of ACC employees get merit pay raises.

The amount of money budgeted by the Mayor and Commission for those three methods has fluctuated over the past decade. For example, there were no pay table adjustments over the past two years. In that same time period however, lawmakers allocated over $2 million for merit pay, and another $3.4 million for cost of living adjustments after budgeting no money for merit pay in the previous three years.

Pubic safety employees, like police, sheriff's deputies, firefighters, corrections officers, and investigators in the district attorney's office, get market adjustments to their pay and periodic pay table adjustments, but do not receive merit pay like their civilian counterparts. Rather, the same goal is accomplished through rank changes and promotion.

High rates of staff turnover are a concern

One major concern for lawmakers and staff is the 17 percent turnover rate among county employees. Jeff Hale, who heads the county’s HR department, told commissioners that, while the pandemic plays a role in that, the trend started earlier.

"Our turnover started to tick up in 2018, which was the sort of front wave of the boomer exodus that everyone had predicted," Hale said. And then we [had] higher turnover driven by our public safety, particularly in law enforcement, and then we had COVID and the sort of broader economic trends of labor shortages and resignations and higher inflation and higher wages all come together in this latter period."

Not just an ACC problem

The stresses on the county as an employer are reflective of those facing employers of all sizes, public and private, around the country – for example, inflation is rising far faster than wages. But, effects of wage compression following the commission’s decision to raise the minimum wage for its workers to $15 an hour without adjusting other employees’ wages upward may also be leading to high turnover.

Put another way, if an employee made $14 an hour before the wage hike, they saw a pay raise, but if they made $15, they didn’t, and that can create a sense of dissatisfaction among employees that could have them leaving their jobs with ACC for greener pastures.

As part of that $15 per hour wage floor, commissioners also jumpstarted a wage study which, when completed, should provide guidance on addressing the wage compression problem. Commissioners hope that work will be completed in time to inform the budget process.

Turnover among county employees is extremely high overall, but the highest turnover, about 28 percent, is among workers who have been with ACC for fewer than 5 years. Turnover is also significant among people who have worked for the county for more than 10 years. The group in the middle, employees with five to ten years of service, has relatively low turnover.

Laura Welch, assistant director of the county’s HR department, told commissioners that might be thanks to the county’s pension plan, which requires ten years of employment before a worker is eligible.

"Luckily that pension would appear to be working in terms of retention, but it's only working if they get most of the way towards earning it or if they've already earned it," Welch said.

The process of developing the county’s budget continues over the coming weeks, with a final vote from commissioners expected this spring.