Editorial: Commissioners' lack of data for employee pay raise is disheartening

We were hopeful.

When the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners on June 22 tabled a 3%, across-the-board raise for county employees that would cost taxpayers $1.14 million during the next 18 months, we were hopeful our commissioners would dig into the data.

They would use this time for research and then soundly justify to the taxpaying public with detailed numbers and statistics why the pay increase was warranted.

In this editorial space a few days after commissioners publicly floated the idea of the pay increase, we asked a number of questions. Among them, we wanted to know how pay scales in various county departments compared to our neighbors and counties of similar population. We also wanted to know how many county employees left their jobs during the past five years, where they went, why they left and information from any exit interviews. Pay often looms large in someone's decision to leave a job, but other factors — benefits, paid time off, work schedule, proximity to family, etc. — are also important considerations.

We — and you, a member of the taxpaying public — received little of that information.

Now, we feel hopeless.

On Monday, commissioners voted 3-2 to give all county employees a 3% pay increase retroactive to July 1. Board Chairman Lynn Laughter and Commissioners Harold Brooker and Roger Crossen voted in favor of the pay increase. Commissioners Greg Jones and Barry Robbins voted against it.

The pay increase will cost the county about $380,000 this year as it only applies to the last six months of the year. In 2021, the pay increase doubles to about $760,000.

Whitfield County employees received a 2% pay increase in 2019. All employees received a 3% pay increase in 2017, and certified peace officers in the sheriff's office received an additional pay increase that year.

The three commissioners who voted for the most recent pay raise provided few statistics to back up their million dollar-plus spending. They gave the impression of a business executive unprepared for a presentation to his or her bosses, a student who figured he or she could ace a physics test without cracking a book. Those commissioners were simply winging it.

Laughter, the outgoing chairman who lost the Republican Party primary to political newcomer Jevin Jensen on June 9, said, "We aren't keeping up with our employees' salaries."

Who? What? How? Why? When?

When a reporter asked if commissioners had studied how the county's pay scale compares to peer counties, Laughter said, "Over the years we have looked at that. I've had HR (Human Resources) call other counties and see what their firefighters make and all that. Maybe not an official study."

Who? What? How? Why? When?

Brooker, who is leaving the board at the end of the year due to term limits, justified the raise because county employees deserve it and "The city of Dalton gives raises almost every year."

Because someone else is doing it is not a justification.

Crossen said on average the city of Dalton pays firefighters $2 an hour more than the county.

We need much more detailed information about all departments.

Forget for a moment commissioners' refusal to study in-depth pay rates, attrition, etc., take a look at the economy on a worldwide, national, state and local scale. To say the effects of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) have wrecked economies would be a gross understatement.

This past Thursday, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that jobless claims nationwide surpassed 1 million for the 17th consecutive week.

The jobless rate for Metro Dalton (Whitfield and Murray counties) fell from 20.6% in April to 11.1% in May, according to the state Department of Labor. Despite the drop, Metro Dalton's jobless rate still ranks highest among the state's Metropolitan Statistical Areas.

Anecdotally, how many of your coworkers, friends and family have lost their jobs, had their pay cut or hours reduced during the pandemic?

While some commissioners believe county revenues haven't been grossly affected by the economic slowdown so far, they should err on the conservative side of things.

Watch every penny. Only spend what is necessary. And when commissioners do spend, they should have the data to back it up.

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