Commissioners postpone vote on 3% pay increase for county employees to July

Fire photo/Daily Citizen-News

Whitfield County Fire Chief Edward O'Brien says the department has lost 16 firefighters to other agencies or to the private sector in the last six years. He says "a lot of times" those firefighters cite higher pay as the reason for leaving but they also site the long hours and other demands of the job.

Members of the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners agreed Monday night that county employees deserve a pay raise. But there was disagreement about whether it was the right time to give them one.

Commissioners voted 4-0 Monday to postpone a vote on giving employees a 3% pay increase until the commissioners' July 13 meeting. Employees got a 2% percent pay increase in 2019. All employees got a 3% pay increase in 2017, and certified peace officers in the sheriff's office got an additional pay increase that year.

Chairman Lynn Laughter began a special called meeting Monday by saying that commissioners had discussed the pay increase when they put the 2020 budget together this past fall. She said they agreed to wait until June to vote on the measure and put funds for the pay increase into the contingency fund. County Administrator Mark Gibson said the pay increase would cost about $380,000 this year since it would only apply for the final six months of the year. It would cost about double that, some $760,000, in 2021.

As the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread and severely impacted the economy, millions across the country have lost their jobs. The Dalton Metro area unemployment rate was a record 20.5% in April, the latest month for which data are available. Metro Dalton includes Whitfield and Murray counties. The unemployment rate for the state in April was 11.9%.

Laughter said that the county is losing employees, especially firefighters and sheriff's deputies, to the private sector or to other agencies.

"We aren't keeping up with our employees' salaries," said Laughter.

Laughter did not provide any numbers or statistics. After the meeting, Fire Chief Edward O'Brien said that since he arrived in 2014 that department has lost 10 firefighters to other departments and six to the private sector. The department currently has about 100 firefighters.

Asked if those firefighters cite higher pay as their reason for leaving, O'Brien said, "A lot of times, yes. Sometimes, it's not just pay but benefits. Sometimes, they are just tired of the shifts. When you add it up, the typical firefighter works about 2,700 hours a year. A 40-hour-a-week employee works 2,080 hours a year, so a firefighter works a lot more hours."

O'Brien said that, on average, the Dalton Fire Department pays about $2 an hour more than the Whitfield County Fire Department.

After reminding commissioners they had discussed a pay increase earlier, Laughter asked for a motion to postpone the vote on the measure, indicating that some commissioners needed more time to study the proposal.

Commissioner Roger Crossen made that motion to postpone the vote, which Commissioner Harold Brooker seconded.

"I made the motion because it seemed like some people were surprised by it (the pay increase vote), even though we have been talking about it for a while," he said. "I want everybody to be informed and be able to make a good decision."

Crossen said he believes county employees deserve a raise.

Commissioner Greg Jones said he also believes county employees deserve a pay raise.

"I'm just not sure now is the right time," said Jones, citing the high unemployment rate brought on by COVID-19.

Commissioner Barry Robbins said he would like to gather more information — on what county revenues are expected to look like and what might happen to the unemployment rate —before voting.

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