Hawkins salary scale with $158K price tag barely survives committee

Jeff Bobo • Updated Jul 16, 2019 at 2:04 PM

ROGERSVILLE – An attempt to remove a new salary scale from Hawkins County's proposed 2019-20 budget failed by a single vote Monday, but the real test will be when its $158,000 price tag comes before the full commission next month.

On Monday the county commission's Budget Committee received revised numbers on its proposed 2019-20 budget.

As it stands the current proposed county general fund budget calls for $17.880 million in revenue and $17.933 in expenditures, leaving a $53,103 deficit which will be balanced using savings.

As of June 30 Hawkins County's general fund had an undesignated fund balance reserve of $5.699 million.

The current budget proposal includes a proposed new salary scale for the approximately 96 employees whose salaries are paid from the general fund.

The sheriff's office, highway department and school system operate under their own budget and have their own separate salary scales.

Departments paid from the county general fund include employees of the County Clerk, Clerk of Courts, Trustee, Property Assessor, Register of Deeds, Election Commission, Solid Waste Department, County Mayor's Office, and the judges' staff.

Over the past year the county office holders have been working with the county commission's Personnel Committee to develop a new salary scale that replaces a scale implemented in 2014. That scale commonly referred to as the “Larry Russell Scale” after its author, has been deemed by everyone in county government to be unfair.

Personnel committee chairman Mark DeWitte noted that many Hawkins County employees live beneath the poverty line, and although this new salary scale doesn't completely resolve that issue, county office holders have called it a step in the right direction.

But, the proposed new salary scale will cost just short of $500,000 to fully implement.

That’s why the Personnel Committee has proposed to implement it over three years, increasing spending approximately $158,000 per year each of those three years until it is fully implemented.

DeWitte told the Budget Committee Monday that implementing the new salary scale won't cost more than what the county would spend giving employees a 2 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) each of those three years.

One issue with the current salary scale is it offers no chance for employees to increase their pay.

“(This salary scale) will get everybody on a level playing field, and get at least the majority of people moving toward above poverty level scale,” DeWitte said. “I don't know how a lot of them do it. They don't have the salary to keep up.”

Budget Committee member Charlie Thacker made a motion to eliminate not only the new salary scale, but also the old salary scale.

Thacker suggested that department heads should be required to come before the Budget Committee during budget deliberations and make their case for salary increases for their staff, the way it was done when Thacker served on the commission in the 1990s and 2000s.

In those days the commission might approve a 25 cent per hour or 50 cent per hour increase for employees if the funding was available.

Thacker said his main problem with the proposed salary scale is making these step increases automatic, and making the county liable for that increased expense every year whether it has the money or not.

Metz noted, however, that if the commission does away with its salary scales and the accompanying policies, setting future county employee salaries will be a “free-for-all”.

“A 2 percent COLA (cost of living adjustment) over three years is going to be essentially equivalent to what this implementation of the pay scale is over that same period of time, and its in much more calculated fashion,” Metz said. “We've got more control by being able to do it this way.”

Committee member Valerie Goins noted that the commission has the option of withdrawing the salary scale funding next year, or in two years, if the budget tightens and the funds aren't available.

The initial vote was 3-3, with Mike Herrell and Raymond Jessee siding with Thacker, while Keith Gibson, John Metz and Valarie Goins voted to keep the new salary scale in the budget.

The deciding vote fell on Rick Brewer, who initially passed so he could hear testimony from the office holders. Trustee Jim Shanks, County Clerk Nancy Davis, and Clerk of Courts Randy Collier spoke out in favor of the new salary scale.

Following a lengthy discussion with office holders Brewer voted to keep the new salary scale in the proposed budget for now.

“This is not final,” Brewer noted.

The Budget Committee is scheduled to meet for its next 2019-20 budget workshop on Aug. 1 at 3 p.m. The budget is expected to come before the full commission for approval at its Aug. 26 meeting.

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