The Putnam County Budget Committee voted 6-1 Thursday to take the next step with a 27.5 cent property tax increase for county residents.
The approved proposal includes fully funding a new pay scale plan for county employees and 91 new employees. Mayor Randy Porter and his team will bring more formal cost estimates to the next committee meeting Monday night.
“I have yet to see us come this close to actually doing some real meaningful reform to make Putnam County a good place to work,” Commissioner Jonathan Williams said. “We finally did an actual survey. We did a study. We have hard data in front of us and now we have a solution to address that survey. So I hope this body and I hope the commission at large doesn’t throw that salary study in the trash and let’s do the right thing by our employees. I know it’s going to cost us money, but it’s the right thing to do.”
The county commissioned a pay study that considered both government and private sector salaries, and the necessary marketplace adjustments needed to match county employee salaries to those numbers. Williams worked off that study and created a second plan that would help employees top out to their max salaries faster, 10 years for emergency and sheriffs department employees, 15 years for other county employees. It also ensured that no county employee would make less than $30,000 annually.
Porter told commissioners Thursday night that second plan would cost $3.6 million, about $400,000 more than the original study.
Commissioner Chris Cassetty, the dissenting vote Thursday night, said the county is trying to tackle two major issues at one time.
“We’re increasing our number of employees by about 25 percent and we understand that a lot of that’s got to do with the jail,” Cassetty said. “We absolutely need to do that. Sheriff’s got to have these people to open the jail. EMS needs the people they’ve asked for. But adding 25 percent of the number of employees you have to the County General Fund, that’s a big bite. That’s a huge undertaking. And what we’re talking about here, too, at the same time is a second huge undertaking.”
Commissioner San Sandlin said the problem goes deeper, because the county dug itself a hole last year not raising property taxes as costs began rising due to inflation.
County Commission Chair Ben Rodgers said if the county waited until next year, it might have additional revenue to fund the marketplace adjustments. Cassetty suggested sending Williams’ proposal to the Pay Scale Committee for a more thorough review during the next year.
Sheriff Eddie Farris said that likely would make the employee situation worse. Farris said the state has increased Highway Patrol salaries and in its new fiscal year budget, Cookeville voted to increase its starting salaries for police and fire.
“When I come up here and tell you I’m losing people, I’m seriously losing people,” Farris said. “So we’re losing not just one or two years of experience, we’re losing a lot of experience. And so I don’t know how to replace that. And it’s going to get worse if we don’t address it. So my thinking is if we don’t address it this year, you’re probably going to have another tax increase next year. I would hope you just do it all and try to package it and get it together and let’s fix it this year so we can move on and give the employees what they need.”
Commissioners also discussed doing a step-raise increase without the new pay plan as a way to both increase salaries and move the overall salary scale. They also discussed looking at the number of fire or EMS employees requested. Several commissioners expressed hesitation at passing a budget plan without making any kind of cuts.
In the final vote of the night, Budget Committee members approved going with Williams’ pay scale plan with one change. Step raises would be eliminated for this fiscal year because the majority, if not all, employees would be getting the marketplace adjustment.
The committee also voted to take some $4.5 million out of the county’s fund balance as a one-time funding mechanism for this year’s spending needs. An additional $1.5 million in capital requests, specifically new vehicles, will be removed from the general fund budget and would be funded through the capital projects fund. That vote Thursday night adds a total of $6 million to the county general fund to pay for this year’s requests.
During the Thursday night vote, county commissioner Dale Moss said he did not think you would find 13 votes on the full county commission to pass that kind of tax increase.