SNOW HILL — Worcester County employees and teachers will get a raise in the upcoming fiscal year, but it likely will not be what they were hoping for.
During budget deliberations on Tuesday, the County Commissioners began a line-by-line inspection of the fiscal year 2014 to close the estimated $7 million gap between requested expenditures and anticipated revenue and naturally the conversation eventually came around to salary increases for county employees, teachers and school bus drivers.
On the table was an across-the-board 2.5-percent salary increase for all county employees including teachers, but after considerable debate, the commissioners voted for the two-percent increase option.
Setting the county employees’ salary increase and Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) increase at 2 percent would make the entire salary package come at around $1.7 million, or nearly $400,000 less than the 2.5-percent increase. While some commissioners were in favor of the two-percent increase option, others wanted to hike county employee salaries by the requested 2.5 percent.
“We’re supposed to have the best school system in the state, and the state has the best school system in the country,” said Commission President Bud Church. “And yet we’ve dropped from sixth or seventh in the state in terms of salaries to 15th. I’m not sure that’s fair.”
County Administrative Director Gerry Mason pointed out the 2-percent increase for county employees last year actually resulted in a net deficit. For example, an employee making $30,000 saw an increase of $600 per year with the 2-percent increase, but with taxes and insurance increases, that same employee spent about $647 more in fiscal year 2013, representing a loss of $47 despite the raise.
Commissioner Judy Boggs said despite the savings realized by dropping from 2.5 percent to 2 percent, the requested salary increase should be fully funded.
“We’re saving almost $400,000 by reducing the increase to 2 percent,” she said. “I think we should keep it at 2.5 percent. If we can do it, then we should.”
However, Commissioner Jimmy Bunting said the only likely way to fund the entire 2.5-percent increase was to make up the difference from the county’s budget stabilization fund created to offset unexpected shortfalls.
“We’re going to have to rob and steal from that budget stabilization fund in order to do this,” he said. “We can’t spend money we don’t have.”
After a motion to set the salary hike at the requested 2.5 percent failed by a 4-3 vote, a second motion was made to set the increase at 2 percent. That motion passed by a vote of 4-3 with Church, Boggs and Commissioners Virgil Shockley and Jim Purnell in favor.
However, the commissioners still had the issue of salary increases for school bus drivers to consider and that debate touched off some fireworks.
Shockley and Purnell recused themselves because they are school bus contractors, leaving only five commissioners to debate the bus driver salary increase. A first motion to set the school bus salary increase at 1 percent passed by a 3-2 vote, but the measure failed because a majority vote of four was needed for it to pass. A second attempt at a 2-percent increase for bus drivers met the same fate when the vote was 3-2 but four votes were needed.
The remaining commissioners then compromised and voted to approve a 1.5-percent increase for bus drivers, touching off a rant from Purnell, who listened to the debate from a hallway behind the dais.
“You showed me today what you think of us bus drivers,” he said. “You sat up here and voted for a 2-percent increase for county employees and the Board of Education and then you turned around and stabbed us in the back. That is a total insult.”