Split Commission Plans Tax Hike, Employee Raises

SNOW HILL — Employees of Worcester County will likely be seeing their first raise in three years this budget cycle while the property tax rate is set to increase 7 cents. However, neither event is guaranteed as the county budget still has to pass a final vote June 5.

Though the tax hike has been considered by many on the commission and the community a forgone conclusion in a year filled with increasing financial demands from the state, both decisions left the County Commission divided.

The commission voted 4-3 to increase the property tax rate by 7 cents from $.70 to $.77 per $100 of assessed value. The increase would bring Worcester property tax revenue back up to constant yield, or the same level as the previous year. This is because recent property reassessments have lowered the value of land in the county and therefore the amount of taxes to be paid has diminished.

The commissioners also voted 4-1 to grant all employees a 2-percent pay increase, though it was a rough process that led to more than one stalemate along the way.

Originally set as a 3-percent bump, the commission voted to offer the employee raise at the lower rate of 2.5 percent. Commissioners Virgil Shockley and James Purnell recused themselves from the vote since both are bus contractors on top of being County Commissioners and could not legally vote on giving themselves a raise.

That left the commission at five members and the vote to grant a 2.5-percent raise resulted in a 3-2 divide. However in a surprise move, Commissioner Madison Bunting, who had obviously anticipated how the vote would fall, announced that it was void since a super majority of the commission’s seven members had to vote in the affirmative on any issue to legally pass it.

“3-2 means no,” he asserted.

County Attorney Sonny Bloxom had to be called in to affirm Bunting’s statement. Bloxom quickly agreed with the commissioner and informed officials that even though Shockley and Purnell weren’t participating in the discussion, four votes were still needed to pass any motion.

“If the vote was 3-2, it doesn’t carry,” he said.

Bunting then struggled to convince his colleagues that it would not be fair to the average citizen to hike their taxes while also boosting employee paychecks.

“It is wrong to give an increase in salary when we’re going to raise people’s taxes … I don’t think this is the right thing to do,” said Bunting.

Bunting has been staunchly opposed to any kind of employee raise in the current economy since the idea first floated to the surface months ago when the Board of Education requested a “modest” faculty and staff pay increase in their fiscal year 2013 budget.

Because school teachers and faculty are county employees, the board’s request was widened to include everyone who works for Worcester.

“I don’t think it’s fair to give anyone a raise … I think it will be hard enough to swallow what we’re doing with taxes,” said Bunting.

The majority of the commission, however, did not line up with Bunting’s reasoning. Commission President Bud Church defended the increase and reminded his colleagues that county employees have gone three years without a raise and have still put forth just as much if not more effort.

“I think they’re entitled to 2.5 percent,” he said. “They’ve worked hard and they don’t complain.”

Commissioners Judy Boggs and Louise Gulyas echoed Church. Boggs also pointed out that the commissioners have already slimmed down the budget significantly since they began examining it Tuesday.

“We have done a lot of cutting today,” she said.

The commission remained deadlocked and when Gulyas attempted to bring the 2.5 percent raise back to discussion, Bunting reminded her that, despite getting the majority vote, the matter failed.

“That is dead,” he said.

“And you’re comfortable with that?” Gulyas asked, and Bunting promised that he was.

In way of compromise, Bunting made a motion to grant all county employees a one-time, $750 bonus. Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw, who had voted with Bunting in the minority, suggested increasing that to $1,000.

However, because of recent changes to state law, there really is no such thing as a “one-time” bonus if it is going to public education employees. Any money that is given to the school system becomes part of its Maintenance of Effort and the same amount must be funded every year. Therefore, granting a bonus to school employees would have to be repeated annually, making it the equivalent of a raise.

The commission majority pointed this out to Bunting and Lockfaw, also noting that Lockfaw’s $1,000 bonus suggestion would amount to about $1.5 million; roughly the same cost as giving employees a 2-percent raise.

“You’re cutting off your nose to spite your face,” said Church of wanting bonuses instead of raises.

Bunting dug in his heels and pledged to oppose any pay raise. He told the commission that even if the move wasn’t popular, it’s what he felt was right.

“I’m not running for re-election today,” said Bunting.

As the only swing vote, Lockfaw became the focus of the commission majority, who tried to affect another compromise. Boggs motioned that a 2-percent raise be granted and reiterated that Lockfaw’s own $1,000 bonus would have cost the county nearly the same amount of money.

At this point, Bunting walked back on his earlier declaration slightly and admitted he could tolerate a 1.5-percent raise. However, Lockfaw switched his vote in favor of Boggs’ 2 percent proposal, albeit with obvious reluctance.

“I do feel strongly, as does Commissioner Bunting, that this is not the time to give a raise,” he said.

However, Lockfaw added that the passionate appeal by the commission majority made a 2-percent raise easier to stomach.

After settling raises, Shockley and Purnell were able to rejoin the session. The vote to increase the property tax rate by 7 cents was quick, with Bunting, Lockfaw and Shockley voting against an increase but being defeated 4-3.

Neither the raise nor the tax hike is official until after the budget receives an overall vote June 5. However, both votes are a likely indication of how the final budget will fall.