County wage freeze doesn't apply to all
Published: Monday, October 1, 2012 at 9:01 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 1, 2012 at 9:01 p.m.
Alachua County employees began their sixth straight year without a cost-of-living increase Monday when the 2012-13 fiscal year began.
Since 2007, the last year raises were granted across the board for county employees, the majority of county workers have seen their wages stagnate.
But that does not mean no one has received a raise.
Hundreds of county employees have seen their pay increase through either promotions, reclassifications, retention incentives or equity pay.
The county has made 216 such changes since 2008, according to records from the county's Human Resources Office obtained by The Sun. These were given to about 185 employees, and almost all of the changes included a pay increase.
Employees get promotions or reclassifications only if the type of work they do changes. Handling more of the same duties, often a byproduct of a shrinking workforce, does not qualify.
Since 2008, the county has made 158 promotions, most of which included a raise of less than $10,000. About 30 saw raises of between $10,000 and $20,000. Fewer than 10 involved increases of $20,000 or more.
People initially making between $30,000 and $50,000 a year received the most promotions, followed by those making less than $30,000.
Communications Coordinator Mark Sexton's pay bump has been the most visible, as his salary jumped from $59,475 to $85,000 in July. He received a retention incentive of $25,525 to keep him from taking a six-figure job offered by Sarasota County Manager Randall Reid, Alachua County's former manager.
But Growth Management Director Steven Lachnicht received a bigger bump — $30,942 — in June 2008 when he was promoted from principal planner for Development Services to his current position. He now makes $100,000 annually.
County staff had hoped they might get a raise after interim County Manager Richard Drummond included a 2 percent raise in his initial budget plan for 2012-13. But the County Commission eliminated it from the final proposal.
In August, county Public Works Director Richard Hedrick spoke to the board about the mounting frustration among the workers.
"I've had several say they just see limited opportunities here, and they don't see it changing," he said in a later interview. "They see it getting worse."
Commissioner Susan Baird, however, said the private sector is in even worse shape.
"If someone were to quit because they didn't get paid enough, there'd be five people ready to take that job," she said.
Drummond acknowledged that it is difficult to continue telling employees to keep waiting for raises.
"They're tired of hearing or sensing that the attitude is, ‘Be happy you've got a job,' even if they are," he said.
Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said it was unfortunate the board could not approve across-the-board raises this year, which would have cost about $1.4 million. He said the trade-off would have meant cutting more positions — some of which are now filled.
"We made a conscious decision to try to save as many jobs as possible," he said.
Since 2009, the county has laid off nine people, said Donna Murray, a senior human resources analyst. The county now has 795 filled positions and about 70 vacant ones.
In 2007, the county had about 900 positions, but many vacant jobs have been eliminated to cut costs and avoid layoffs, she said.
This means some employees are shouldering larger workloads but can't receive raises because the kind of work they're doing hasn't changed.
Commissioner Mike Byerly said denying raises to employees could lead some of the county's best staff members to search for — and take — other job offers.
The public works department is down to the bare minimum in its engineering staff, having lost three engineers in the past six months to other jobs, Hedrick said.
Officials noted that county workers who live in Alachua County got a financial break when the commission kept the general-fund property tax rate at almost 8.6 mills for the upcoming fiscal year, which began Monday.
But that was blunted when their health insurance premiums increased 3.3 percent, Employee Benefits Coordinator Colleen Duffy said.
County workers last received a cost-of-living increase in 2007 and a merit-based increase in 2006, according to the county report.
They received a one-time, countywide bonus of just less than $750 in 2008. A 2011 state law prohibits such bonuses for public employees, although merit-based ones are permitted, Murray said.
The county negotiates with three labor unions: one for Laborers' International Union of North America, which represents blue-collar workers such as equipment operators; and two for the International Association of Fire Fighters. Drummond said he did not think union members had received any raises or significant concessions in lieu of raises since 2008.
The Sun used data compiled in a county report that tracked salary changes from October 2001 to Sept. 10 of this year to learn how often employees have received promotions, retention incentives, equity pay or reclassifications since 2008.
When employees are promoted, they typically get either a 10 percent pay increase or the base salary of their new job classification — whichever is higher — but can be offered more with administrative approval. Department heads can give promotions but collaborate with Drummond on critical positions.
Department and administrative heads say they typically prefer to promote from within, but the commission last year changed its policy. Staff now must publicly advertise job openings of a certain supervisory level to encourage more inclusive recruitment, Drummond said.
The commission must approve requests to waive that requirement.
Employees also can get a temporary raise if they work in an interim, higher-level assignment. Sometimes, promotions have quickly followed such temporary assignments, according to the county report.
Retention incentives are used to keep an employee from leaving. Eleven people have received such increases since 2008; Sexton's $25,525 raise was the largest. The next-closest was the $12,419 given in August to Applications Manager Ryan Evans, who now makes $83,000 a year.
Retention incentives don't need commission approval.
They do not require a change in an employee's workload, but Drummond gave Sexton the additional task of preparing and coordinating the board's legislative agenda and activities for the county.
This work had been done by the legislative affairs director, a position Drummond had suggested be eliminated in fiscal year 2012-13. Richard Mills, who filled that position and would have been laid off, was promoted to director of the Office of Management and Budget on Sept. 24, Sexton said.
"I felt comfortable with my decision," Drummond said of the changes to Sexton's pay.
Drummond said former County Manager Reid was concerned about department heads' retention decisions and handled those issues himself. It might as well have been a freeze on such pay increases, he said.
Reid also maintained this policy for equity pay. Since 2008, eight people have had their pay increased to that of more recent hires who do the same kind of work. Most included an increase of less than $10,000, and none were for more than $20,000, according to the report.
Employees also can get a boost if their positions are reclassified to better reflect the work they now perform. This could include a raise if their new classification is higher than their previous one.
There have been 39 reclassifications since 2008, with the majority including a salary increase of less than $10,000. A few did not include a pay bump, and no one received an increase of more than $20,000, according to the report.
Drummond said he does not sense that workers are upset that others are getting raises through promotions or other avenues. He does feel that employees believe the commissioners do not appreciate how hard they are working.
"Sometimes even a token of gratitude is enough," he said. "It gives you a little bit to feed on, instead of feeling like you're not being respected."
County workers also cannot help but notice that some of their counterparts in other public sector positions are receiving raises.
The Gainesville City Commission last month included a 2 percent raise in its fiscal year 2012-13 budget. City workers received a 2 percent raise this fiscal year.
The University of Florida's eligible faculty members received a 3 percent raise in March, although officials called it a retirement payment since state law requires public employees to make a 3 percent contribution to their retirement plans — a requirement that applies to county employees as well.
A circuit court judge ruled in March that it was unconstitutional to force state employees to contribute to their pensions. While the ruling remains under appeal, the stipulation will continue.
Meanwhile, workers in other branches of local government are keeping an eye on the goings-on with Alachua County government. One salary issue in particular caught everyone's attention: Sexton's raise.
Sheriff Sadie Darnell wrote in an email to Drummond and county commissioners that a Sun headline regarding his approximately 43 percent salary increase was "a kick in the teeth to all other employees throughout county government."
In an interview, Darnell said that morale among Alachua County Sheriff's Office employees is almost the lowest she has ever seen it. Raises are a real need for employees, not "fluff" that can be cut from the budget, she said.
"I've got people who are losing their homes," she said, "who are tapping into their retirement savings in order to pay bills, who are watching every penny that they have in order to pay groceries or pay their utilities."
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/morganwatkins26.
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