Lack of bonus leaves county employees' wallets light

By Thomas Wilson
star staff

  While Carter County government employees received a 1.5 percent pay raise in the county's fiscal year 2005 budget, an additional pay boost of $150 set forth by the County Commission will not be in their paychecks for the third time in four years.
  The County Commission approved the fiscal year 2005 budget at its last meeting in September. The budget -- recommended and approved by the commission's Budget Committee -- raised the county property tax rate 34 cents from $2.22 to $2.56 per $100 of assessed value. The tax rate included a 1.5 percent pay raise to county employees but no mention of the $150 bonus was made during budget talks.
  "The county is not buildings, equipment, or material -- it is people," County Mayor Dale Fair said on Friday. "The first thing you should do in a budget is take care of your people."
  The $150 bonus was initiated as a guideline by the County Commission during the 1980s.
  County officials say the bonus was funded off and on for several years. For three of the past four budget years, county employees have not received the bonus. The $150 bonus to approximately 180 county government employees translates to roughly $27,000.
  Fair said the $150 bonus was included in the 2002-2003 budget, but neither of the past two budget cycles included the money. County employees received neither a step pay raise nor the $150 bonus during the 2001-2002 budget, he said.
  Fair was also rather peeved that the budget committee circumvented his office completely during the budget process. He also felt a committee decision to set the budget by cutting $50,000 in county funding to the Carter County Rescue Squad was inappropriate.
  County Finance Director Jason Cody, who serves with the budget committee, said the county's financial woes made discretionary dollars few and far between over the past two budget cycles. He said the $150 bonus for the county's approximately 180 employees did not come up in budget talks this year.
  "We didn't include it last year," Cody said. "This year again it was a very tight process."
  The financial strain Cody speaks of comes from a federal court order requiring the county to alleviate overcrowding conditions at the Carter County Jail. A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court at Greeneville earlier this year complaining of overcrowded conditions at the jail became a class-action when current and former inmates joined the complaint.
  The county must have temporary housing units for inmates by early next year. Grading work for a 96-bed housing development began last month. The county must have a permanent jail facility built by 2007.
  The county's budget committee met 11 times between February and September trying to iron out the county's 2004-2005 budget to fund the jail's expansion. Committee members frequently argued among themselves over county employee pay and discretionary spending. The employee pay issue turned into a political football as a property tax increase became all but inevitable to fund the court-ordered expansion of the jail.
  Budget Committee Chairman Wayne Holtsclaw said the committee sought to give county employees a 2 percent pay raise, but additional costs for health and life insurance added one half cent to the existing property tax rate allocations. Holtsclaw said delays in the budget process came due to some commissioners voting one way in committee and changing their vote in the subsequent commission meeting.
  "They get out on the floor and change their mind," said Holtsclaw, a commission member for more than 40 years. "They'd vote for it in the committee and then change their vote different."
  Commissioners and committee members Joe Woods and Tom "Yogi" Bowers were outspoken advocates for a 3 percent pay raise for county employees. Bowers frequently chastised fellow committee members in later budget meetings about shying away from a 3 percent pay raise. He also recommended the $50,000 reduction in funding to the Rescue Squad.
  Fair said had the committee voted on a 3 percent pay raise the need for the $150 bonus this year might not be necessary.
  "I felt like the 3 percent would be as much or more than the bonus," Fair said.
  Cody and Fair said a proposal to conduct an independent study evaluating county employees' pay was shot down by the budget committee earlier this year. Cody said the study would have compared county employees' salaries with that of neighboring counties and provided an overview of defining job descriptions and a salary scale.
  "We are interested in looking at the salaries to see how our departments stack up," Cody said.