Commissioners Hold Off Decision On Employee Raises

SNOW HILL — After briefly sticking a proverbial toe in the water Tuesday, the Worcester County Commission decided to hold off on further discussion on employee salary raises until later this month.

The elephant in the room is whether the commission will be able to afford the requested STEP and Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) increases for all employees with the budget still facing a $2.4 million shortfall as of this week.

The total requested cost of a STEP and COLA increase for county employees would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.2 million. The lion’s share of that would be for Board of Education employees who make up the largest part of the county workforce. The school system’s request comes to just shy of $2 million, breaking down to $916,243 for a STEP, $588,220 for a 1-percent CoLA and $412,206 for longevity bonuses for staff who have advanced past their STEP program.

Factoring in $516,000 in salary savings from the Board of Education, this amounts to about a net $1.4 million. Bus contractors would be seeing a comparable increase as well under the proposed budget.

For the remainder of county employees, the cost would be $531,345 for their STEP, $223,882 for COLA and $66,500 for longevity bonuses, a total of $821,727.

The majority of the commission’s discussion focused on the proposed Board of Education salary increase this week. This included what effect it would have on the Maintenance of Effort (MoE), the minimum amount of funding expected from the county to be put toward education every year. It is currently at roughly $73.5 million but is set to rise with the salary increase as well as other factors.

“So what I’m concerned about is, how much are we building up Maintenance of Effort?” asked Commissioner Judy Boggs. “Because this increase in Maintenance of Effort stays with us forever and we have to build on it every year.”

If everything, including a raise, is approved then the MoE would increase by about $2.3 million up to $75,842,557.

Commissioner Virgil Shockley said that he needed some clarification on the situation. He had questions specifically about the state of the school system’s budget, which appears to be showing a surplus.

“So you’ve got a little issue with what they’ve actually got left over with the budget year that we’re in. Not to confuse anything more than it’s confused, but in the budget year that we’re already in they have a little over $500,000,” he said.

Shockley also wondered where the salary increases the county has granted in the past two years have gone to as starting salaries for teachers have not seen much movement.

According to information submitted by the school system, back in FY13 the board requested that employees be granted a STEP and a mid-year STEP pay raise, or a 1.5-percent adjustment for those outside of the STEP range. The mid-year STEP was not granted but employees were given the STEP and adjustment. In FY14, a STEP was requested along with a 1-percent COLA. The CALA was not granted but the STEP was for those eligible as was a 1-percent adjustment for those outside of the STEP program.

The roughly $500,000 left over in the board’s budget also caught the eye of Boggs.

“I guess I’m a little confused because their budget must be set up different than ours,” she said of the BoE. “When we save something, it shows up as a surplus. I’ve never seen a surplus in the Board of Education budget. But whatever else you call it, this $500,000 is a surplus because they didn’t spend it.”

The savings were generated by the school system having employees retire this year and then filling those vacancies with newer staff that are starting at a lower pay grade as well as some other restructuring. The Board of Education has indicated it will be submitting a budgetary transfer for the current year from salaries to Textbooks and Classroom Supplies.

“They are going to take that savings and apply it to technology,” said Harold Higgins, administrative officer for the county. “They are going to take $500,000 and re-designate that to their IT line.”

It will include a few other items as well, according to Barb Witherow, Coordinator of Public Relations and Special Programs for the Board of Education.

“This will allow our school system to fund small capital improvement projects requested by schools; curriculum programs; the purchase of technology devices for teachers, STEM initiatives, and to support digital conversion and the replacement of technology devices that are still operating on the obsolete XP platform,” she said.

Witherow disagreed with labeling the $500,000 a “surplus.”

“Savings do not constitute a surplus which, by definition, represents something that remains above or greater than what is needed,” she said. “Savings are generated from actions taken to reduce expenditures.”

Even if the budgetary transfer is approved, Witherow also noted that funding levels for the instructional supplies category would still be $200,000 short of the FY09 rate that was slashed following the recession.