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County gives go-ahead to pay raises
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Effingham County millage rate
A look at the county portion of the millage rate over the years

Fiscal year    Millage rate
2005              10.127
2006                9.943
2007                9.756
2008                8.913
2009                8.854
2010                8.352

County budget                    

                       Previous        Current           Difference
General fund    $30,457,116    $30,002,770    $454,346
Special fund     $22,033,915    $21,940,345    $93,570
Total                $52,491,031    $51,943,031    $547,916

To the applause from the county employees in attendance, Effingham County commissioners approved a budget that includes pay raises for its workers.

By a 5-1 vote, commissioners adopted a fiscal year 2010 spending plan that includes 4 percent cost of living adjustment increases for the 318 employees working for the county. But it does not include proposed merit pay increases that had been under consideration.

Commissioner Reggie Loper, who had been vocal in his opposition to the pay raises, voted against the budget. The vote came after a public hearing that lasted nearly two and a half hours as residents and employees gave their two cents about the $30 million budget.

“I think we could have held off the timing (of the raises),” Loper said.

Loper also asked if the raises could be delayed until Jan. 1, 2010, in order to get a gauge on the economy at that point.

The fiscal year 2010 budget is more than $450,000 less than the $30.5 million spending plan commissioners adopted for FY09. It also carries a reduction in the millage rate from 8.854 to 8.352. That’s a deeper cut from the original proposal of 8.687 for the current fiscal year.

One mill of the tax digest equates to about $1.8 million. On a home valued at $100,000, the current tax bill — for county purposes only — would be $333.

In adopting the budget, commissioners also approved the pay raises to go into effect for 23 pay periods instead of 26. The budget was to have been adopted by July 1 — the start of the current fiscal year — and there have been three pay periods since that date. Merit raises, which had been under consideration, also were not included in the budget.

Eliminating the merit increases saved nearly $110,000, and going with 23 pay periods for the COLA increase saved another $57,000. County staff also reduced continuing education and travel by 15 percent, totaling more than $46,000, and reducing proposed and frozen positions resulted in another $334,000 off the county’s bottom line.

The total reduction was nearly $548,000, about 6 percent, according to finance director Joanna Wright. The raises accounted for a 1.9 percent bump in the budget.

But many citizens questioned the timing of the raises and asked commissioners to continue to find ways to cut the budget to alleviate the tax burden.

“This is not about the employees. This is about the tax base,” said Ruth Lee. “These are tough times. But they have a job. They have a regular paycheck, and they have some of the best benefits in health insurance I’ve ever seen. Cutting the cost of government will result in lower taxes.

“You can help the taxpayers in these hard times. You can reduce the millage rate and you can reduce the taxes we pay,” Lee said.  “A small amount to a family that is struggling makes a difference.”

County employees, however, argued in favor of the raises. A compensation survey showed that Effingham County workers were paid 14 percent below the average for employees of counties of a similar population.

“We have a lot of single parents,” said Jennifer Keyes, who works in the tax assessor’s office. “Day care for one child is $110 a week. That’s a lot of money. We like working for the county. We appreciate our jobs. The minimum wage going up is going to make everything else go up.”

Said Karen Arnold: “A lot of your employees are also taxpayers. We go above and beyond. We go the extra mile. You’ve asked us to take on more responsibility, and we have.”

A plan to stabilize wages

Loper said the decision wasn’t about whether to cut services or cut employees.

“We want to keep the employees we’ve got,” he said. “They’ve got the best insurance in the state of Georgia, that I know of. We’re not just looking out for the 300 employees of Effingham County — we’re looking out for the whole county.”

Commissioner Jeff Utley said the employees gave up those raises — there were no raises of any kind in FY06 — in order to get that insurance package.

Commissioner Verna Phillips noted that the county had a serious attrition problem in the sheriff’s department five years ago. Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie agreed to sacrifice nine open positions in order to offer a better starting salary to his deputies. At one point, the sheriff’s department had 12 positions McDuffie could not fill because qualified candidates could not afford the loss in pay to come to Effingham, according to the sheriff.

Over the last year, he has lost only three employees. But even with the pay raises, other agencies pay 50 percent more than the ECSO does, the sheriff said.

Phillips also offered the concern that without the raises, employees might leave for other positions when other entities begin hiring again and said the county has gone through that before.

“We were losing money left and right by training people and losing them to other counties,” she said.

Commissioners had decided to address the gap in pay for their employees in stages, and this was one of the years they decided to do it, Phillips added.

“This has been a strategic plan we’ve had,” she said. “This is not a knee-jerk plan. One of the caveats is that the millage rate must go down. We have been meeting those objectives. It’s not that we’re being frivolous — we’re not. We’re being prudent. The budget’s been going down, and you have a safe county to live in.”

Mark Czachowski, a local financial planner, said he asks his clients why they are either coming to Effingham or leaving. When it comes to why they’re leaving, he said it’s the taxes and added that one client left Effingham to live in Chatham.

“It’s tough; economically, it’s tough,” he said. “I wish we could give everybody a raise. I just don’t know where this cash cow is and in whose yard she’s tied up in.”

Rhonda Rodewolt said her son works in public safety in the county, but she too opposed giving the raises now.

“I just think it’s bad timing,” she said.

But county employees also bristled at the assertion from others that they should be grateful to have a job in the current economic climate.

“I live and breathe to serve you,” said Deputy Brian Shearouse. “I live and breathe to serve this county. The county is making reductions. The budget has gone down. Stop making the comments a county employee should feel privileged to still have a job.”

Commission Chairman Dusty Zeigler told the nearly three-fourths full room that he was for lean government but also was concerned that trained, experienced county employees would leave for better positions with other governments if the economic downturn ended.

“Just about the time you get the workhorse trained not to eat, he up and dies on you,” he said. “There is a strategic plan to catch up these employees (to their comparable level). It will balloon at some point. We either pay for it now or pay for it later.”

McDuffie thanked the commissioners for their efforts in bringing the employees’ pay closer in line with that of other counties.