Athens-Clarke County Commissioners voted 7 – 3 to pass the county’s budget last night at a special session. Commissioners walked into Tuesday’s meeting with not one, but three budget proposals to evaluate – Mayor Kelly Girtz’s proposed budget, as well as two Commission-defined options – one from District 2 Commissioner Mariah Parker and the other from Commissioners Mike Hamby, Ovita Thornton, and Allison Wright.
The differences between the Parker plan and the Hamby/Thornton/Wright proposal centered on a major issue that has bedeviled lawmakers throughout the process – how to raise wages for the county’s lowest-paid workers to a minimum $15 per hour. Commissioners agreed that the pay hike needs to happen, but clashed over two key details – when the raise would take place, and how to handle pay for workers making over the proposed $15 hourly minimum, an issue called wage compression.
On the first issue, timing, Parker’s proposal would kick in the pay raises when the budget takes effect on July 1, while the Hamby/Thornton/Wright option would postpone the raise until January 1, 2022. However, the Hamby/Thornton/Wright option also included a 12.2 percent pay hike for other county employees, a measure not in Parker’s plan, which would instead fund a study to find a way down the road to handle the wage compression problem.
Commissioner Mike Hamby pointed to the immediate help his plan would provide to those county employees making more than $15 per hour, saying, "We have 255 employees that make $18. If we help them, they will make an extra $4,500 per year."
Hamby’s co-sponsor, Commissioner Ovita Thornton framed their Commission Defined Option as a way to help more county employees.
"I am 100 percent supportive of the $15 an hour wage increase," Thornton told Commissioners. "But we wanted to do the best for the most, and not just for a selected few."
Commissioner Jesse Houle, a supporter of Parker’s proposal, said that an across-the-board 12 percent raise wasn’t something they could support. "I really appreciate that Commissioners Hamby and Wright and Thornton are trying to address the issues of wage compression, but I think a flat 12 percent raise is not the best way to do that," Houle said. "I don't believe that our highest-paid employees making higher six figure [salaries] need to get $20,000 raises just because we brought the wage floor up to fifteen an hour."
That’s a sentiment shared by Houle’s colleague, District 5’s Tim Denson, who stressed that the $15 per hour minimum is a first step in raising salaries for more county employees, saying, "The wage compression study is included in Commissioner Parker's CDO." Denson added, "A 12.2 percent raise across the top, while it would give some decent raises to the people down at the bottom, there's going to be some salaries at the top that get tens of thousands of dollars."
Commissioners ultimately approved Parker’s budget proposal, with Hamby, Thornton, and Wright voting no. The new budget will take effect on July 1.