Thursday, June 13, 2024

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Consultant’s pay study translates to raises for most county staff

Alamance County’s commissioners have bestowed mid-year pay raises on most of the county’s staff members in response to a pay study that had keyed in on some of the county’s most turnover-ridden departments.

During a regularly-scheduled meeting on Tuesday, the commissioners unanimously voted to extend some form of salary adjustment to 850 of the county’s 901 fulltime employees. These raises, which were backdated to January 1, are expected to cost the county some $430,048.30 in this fiscal year – or the equivalent of about 1.7 percent of the county’s overall payroll expense.

The commissioners ultimately adopted these raises based on a formal market analysis that they had requested last year from the Baker Tilly consulting firm.

Baker Tilly’s original remit had been to compare salaries in EMS, social services, and the sheriff’s office with the going rates at other agencies and organizations that are competing for the same labor pool as Alamance County.

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Sarah Towne, a consultant with the nationally-renowned firm, told the commissioners that she and her colleagues obtained salaries from 12 other counties in order to make these market comparisons. They also gleaned data from three surveys of private sector employers, and they compared this information with 72 “benchmark” positions in the three county departments that they were tasked with assessing.

Consultant Sarah Towne

“I did not get into this business to take money away from local government employees. It is [our company’s] broad philosophy that we will never recommend a pay decrease for any employee as a result of a salary study…[But] we may red circle or freeze an employee’s current salary.”

– Baker Tilly consultant Sarah Towne

Towne went on to acknowledge that these comparisons revealed a modest deficit in Alamance County’s salaries.

“On average,” she explained in her report to the commissioners, “the market is .5 percent above the county’s starting salaries at the minimum, 2.6 percent above the county at the midpoint, and 3.9 percent above the county at the maximum.”

Towne said that she and her colleagues used this information to propose new, market-based pay grades for Alamance County’s professional staff.

Although her firm’s market analysis had only focused on three departments, whose staffs account for a third of the county’s workforce, Towne’s recommended pay grades were assumed to apply across the entire organization. By the same token, Towne suggested some potential pay increases to the commissioners that were meant to extend, like the pay grades themselves, to all of Alamance County’s staff members.

In her report to the commissioners, Towne acknowledged that 143 of the county’s 901 employees had salaries below the low end of the range that she and her colleagues had proposed for their pay grades. She told the commissioners that the county would need to shell out about $223,471 a year just to bring these employees up to those suggested ranges.

Towne added that the commissioners could couple this recommendation with some additional measures that would confer some additional benefits on the 707 staff members whose wages were within the pay grades that she had proposed. One option she floated would’ve offered each of these 707 staffers, as well as the 143 who were below their proposed grades, either a flat 1.5-percent raise or a increase sufficient to bring them within their recommended salary range. Towne noted that this particular strategy would add $857,072 to the county’s annual personnel costs, although the benefits would be more widely felt among staff members.

The third option she proffered also proposed to give each of 143 low-end earners enough to put them within their recommended range. These staffers and the 707 already at par would then get an extra .5 percent tacked on to their wages for each year of service they boast – up to a maximum of 3 percent for those with six years or more in the county’s employ. Towne said that this two-pronged strategy would cost the county about $860,097 a year but it would also ensure that the county’s more senior staff members retain their compensatory advantage over their junior associates.

In addition to the 850 employees that Towne had addressed in her recommendations to the commissioners, she acknowledged that the county has another 51 staff members who base wages exceed the market-based ranges that she has suggested for their positions. The consultant nevertheless emphasized that she has no interest in seeing these presumably-overpaid staff members docked in their wages.

“I did not get into this business to take money away from local government employees,” she went on to assure the county’s governing board. “It is Baker Tilly’s broad philosophy that we will never recommend a pay decrease for any employee as a result of a salary study…[But] we may red circle or freeze an employee’s current salary.”

Of Towne’s three recommendations, the third option, with its focus on a staff member’s longevity, proved the most popular with Alamance County’s manager Heidi York.

York told the commissioners that she felt this strategy would do the most to prevent low-paid, junior staff members from overtaking their more senior colleagues or even their supervisors. All the same, she encouraged the commissioners to implement one of the consultant’s suggestions so as to relieve some of the financial pressure that may be sending some county staff members to other, more generous jurisdictions.

County manager Heidi York

“We sometimes feel like we’re a training ground,” the county manager added. “We look at the counties that are paying significantly higher salaries, and we see we’re losing employees to them.”

In the end, Towne’s third suggestion found favor with county commissioner Pam Thompson, who was later joined in her stance by fellow commissioners Bill Lashley and Craig Turner. This strategy also appealed to Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, who nevertheless noted that additional steps may still be required to give the county a leg up in its struggle to attract and retain the best and the brightest.

“It’s not all salary-related,” he insisted. “Once we standardize our salaries, we need to look at our benefit options…So, this is not something that’s going to be done at one meeting.”

Yet, the clincher for Towne’s third proposal was that it happened to fall well within the sum that the county’s current budget allots for the pay study’s implementation.

With $889,000 already set aside for this purpose, the commissioners needed no extra dollars to cover the proposed pay raises, which are expected to cost just a little over $430,000 for the remainder of the current financial cycle. In the meantime, their willingness to sign off on these hikes earned them a public expression of gratitude from the county’s top-ranking administrator.

“Thank you for implementing this study,” York told the commissioners after the vote. “The employees have been anticipating this for quite some time.”

Absent from Tuesday’s meeting, and hence the vote on the pay study, was John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners. Paisley, according to Carter, was home with a “stomach virus” during that evening’s proceedings.

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