Survey finds county employees down on finance office, position

Photo by Kristen Luther
The 2005 Carter County budget that funded expansion of the county jail (above) but gave only a small raise to county employees may have contributed to the disgruntlement of county employees as reflected in a survey done by a County Commission member.

By Thomas Wilson
star staff

  A survey of Carter County government employees conducted by a County Commission member revealed disenchantment with the county's financial management plan and the finance director's position.
  Commissioner John D. Snyder told the Elizabethton Star on Friday he disseminated the survey to county employees asking if they favored the county operating under the County Financial Management System of 1981 and having a county finance director. He said that of the 120 responses he received, all but two said they opposed both the system and the position.
  "The morale is low and way down," said Snyder.
  The financial management committee was created in 2002 to select a finance director after the commission adopted the state's county financial management act.
  The county's finance director, Jason Cody, was selected by the financial management committee in August 2002. He did not return a telephone call on Friday seeking comment about the survey.
  The financial management law requires a financial director to develop a purchasing, payroll, budgeting, accounting and cash financial management system for the county. The law states that each county department or official keeps his or her authority to hire personnel and set salaries for the department's employees. The law prohibits the committee and the finance director from hiring or dismissal of county personnel or setting salaries.
  Prior to the creation of the finance director's position, the county mayor oversaw the government's financial operations with the assistance of a budget staff.
  Despite the survey's results, Snyder said he was still studying the financial management plan and the director's position as a concept.
  "I don't say I'm for it or against it right now," Snyder. "I'll do whatever I feel like there is to do to help the employees."
  County Executive Dale Fair who spoke to the Star on Friday did not feel the survey gauged the financial management plan's effectiveness or the director's performance. He said the commission adopted the financial management system and now was bound to follow the regulations set for in the law.
  "You're only choice is to abide by it, or the commission can repeal it," Fair said. "It is a management system, it is not conditions or personnel."
  Snyder and fellow County Commissioner Jack Buckles were appointed as commission representatives to the financial management committee earlier this year. Snyder felt the county government's financial difficulties of the past budget year had left a bad taste with county employees.
  "We are just going to have get the morale back up," Snyder said. "It was a rough deal with what we went through last year, it was awful rough."
  Rough financial times hit the county in the form of a federal lawsuit filed just over a year ago.
  A class-action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Greeneville sought damages for current and previous inmates of the Carter County Jail for overcrowding conditions. County officials reached a settlement in the lawsuit that required temporary housing for jail inmates be made available by early next year. The county must have a permanent jail facility built by 2007.
  The County Commission approved the fiscal year 2005 budget in September after contentious debate in the commission and its budget committee. The budget included a hike of 34 cents to the county's property tax rate from $2.22 to $2.56 per $100 of assessed value to fund. Among other things, the temporary housing units presently under construction at the Carter County Courthouse Annex.
  Fair felt the best measure of the plan and the finance director was the timely payment of paychecks to county employees, purchasing invoices, and management of county dollars. He noted the 1981 act did not address employee benefits or "human resources things" involving the plan or the director.
  "If there is a problem you need to address, address the problem not the symptoms," Fair said.
  Fair felt county employees and county commissioners needed a better understanding of the financial system and why the plan was adopted. He said he would be surprised if a majority of commissioners or county employees fully understood what the management plan stated or involved for the county government.
  "It is a fear of the unknown when changes are made," he said. "You have to displace fears with knowledge and facts."
  Fair said the segregated offices of the county government's division of elected office holders and departments created a less centralized form of management than in most private sector organizations. The result was, Fair said, many departments became accustomed to operating independently without a point of contact.
  Fair did acknowledge, however, that county employees needed some positive reinforcement, given recent events. He said the incidents regarding life insurance and pay had contributed to the disgruntlement.
  "There are some morale issues that need to be worked on," he said.
  While the 2005 fiscal year budget included a pay raise of 1.5 percent, county employees did not received a $150 bonus in pay for the third time in the past four budget years. The bonus was created through the discretionary budget power of the commission during the 1980s.
  County employees were also ruffled after their life insurance policies were changed without their knowledge earlier this year.
  The county provides $10,000 in life insurance free of charge to county employees. Some employees paid for additional coverage with the payments coming out of their pay checks. In February, Cody decided to switch the county's insurance provider from Canada Life Assurance Company to MetLife Insurance Company after learning Canada Life was being sold to Jefferson Pilot Company. Employees did not become aware of the decision until October.
  Cody told the Star in October that the decision was a positive move to a more "stable and solid company". He also said the decision to switch insurance companies was the possibility of significant rate increases from Jefferson Pilot. MetLife offered the county the chance to pay the same rate that was being paid to Canada Life.
  Snyder said the commission and county employees needed more information about how they fit in to the financial system's operation.
  "I think he's going to have to work with us," he said of Cody. "You've got to work with the employees to keep their confidence up."