Craighead County’s 280 or so workers are almost certain to not receive a cost of living increase in the coming year. Craighead County Quorum Court members voted 7-3 with one justice of the peace abstaining Monday night to approve a $29.736 million budget for 2017 that does not include pay raises.
Two justices were absent from the meeting.
Officials had hoped to enact a 5% reduction in the total budget compared to what was spent in 2016, but the new budget is only $500,000 less. Several JPs argued during the contentious meeting that cuts in other departments, such as the road department, were necessary to increase employee compensation.
“We’re going to lose good people if we don’t do something,” JP Billie Sue Hoggard said.
County Judge Ed Hill told Talk Business & Politics he wants to give employees a raise, but the county cannot afford it. In 2016, the county had to take $300,000 from its reserves to balance its budget, and a 3% across the board raise could cause that amount to spike to $500,000 if revenues don’t increase.
“I think our employees would rather not get a raise this year and keep their jobs three or four years from now … we can’t afford it,” Hill said.
JP Josh Longmire asked for a change in the county’s 1-cent sales tax reimbursement. The county places 60% of the tax in the road department, and the other 40% goes into the county general fund. He proposed a 50/50 split, and the difference would be just enough to cover a salary increase.
Hill told members the road department budget took a $150,000 cut last year, and it’s already been depleted in recent years. Further cuts in the road budget would be “unjustified,” the judge said.
JP Ray Kidd defended Hill, noting that many of the voters in his district care more about roads than raises for county employees. County administrative assistant Tony Thomas told Talk Business & Politics the budget was approved during committee meetings, and an across the board raise was not discussed.
JP Richard Rogers voted against the budget and told other members one of the key problems the county has is it doesn’t have a full time human resources employee. Pay scales and other benefits are hard to tabulate because the county doesn’t have a person in place to take care of those issues. The county has to constantly rely on studies to determine if employee compensation is commensurate with other cities in the state of similar size and revenue levels.
“How long are we going to live in the dark ages?” Rogers asked rhetorically.
The justices were asked what it would take for them to vote for the budget, and Longmire said if employees were given a 1% or 2% pay increase he could support it. Rogers and Garry Meadows, who also voted to not approve the budget, and Hoggard who abstained, seemed to agree with Longmire’s request.
Hill reiterated the money is not available. The county can only budget 90% of its anticipated budget per state law. The difference between the budgeted amount and allowable projected amount is a paltry $2,000, according to the county’s budget report.
Because a court supermajority of nine votes was not reached, the court will reconvene later this week to vote a third time. Since it has already been voted on twice, a seven-vote majority is all that will be needed to pass the measure, Thomas said.
Hill and several members said during the meeting if revenues are better than anticipated, the court might take a second look at employee raises mid-year. During the 40 years he’s worked for the county and served as county judge, Hill said there have only been a handful of years the county didn’t adjust its budgets for a cost of living increase.