Monday, February 26, 2024

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Graham, NC 27253
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Truth in packaging – let’s just call it what it is: a pay RAISE study

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We’re always amused at the typical government gambit for getting more and more pay raises approved for already well-paid government workers.  Such workers also have very lush health and benefits packages not usually available for private sector workers who are expected to pick up the tab, through their property taxes, for the wealthier government workers.

The favorite city manager/county manager tactic is to call for a pay study – always described as being done by expert, impartial outsiders who will compare the local jurisdiction’s pay scale (and individual workers’ salaries) with those of “comparable” jurisdictions.

There are inevitably ways to game the system, which we’re used to seeing.  Most common is the technique of comparing local salaries with those from larger jurisdictions, especially those with wealthier tax bases, and thus more revenue. These are defined as “comparable” or “peer” governments, but that’s very questionable, in our judgment.

Inevitably, the favorite locations for such “comparisons” are wealthy, urban counties like Wake, Guilford, Forsyth, Orange, and Mecklenburg – and for cities, inevitably, Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Charlotte, Asheville, etc.

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In such a comparison, middle-of-the-road Alamance is going to look like pikers when compared to these higher-income jurisdictions.

So, we weren’t too surprised to see that the latest “compensation/market study” done for Alamance County government included not only counties of similar size and comparable incomes – like Davidson, Randolph, and Rockingham counties – but also the high-fliers in income and spending, such as. . . just guessed it. . . Orange, Durham, Guilford, and Wake.

So, predictably, Alamance County government salaries were found to be “behind the market, on average,” by about 2.6 percent, according to the study.

“On average,” the consultant who presented the study 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.”

While the study was started as a review and comparison of three high-turnover Alamance County departments, the findings were then extrapolated to all county departments – wildly expanding the scope and expense.

There are also a couple of significant caveats in the footnotes of the study: No adjustments were considered for performance.  And no consideration was made for any consideration of longevity.

So, if Alamance County has a lower-performing, newer employee (of shorter tenure), he or she would still be compared with the salary of those with longer tenure, perhaps higher-performance, in these other “peer” governments.

But here’s the real kicker: the consultant firm “does not recommend a pay decrease for any employee as a result of the study.” [our emphasis “any employee”].

In fact, the consultant, Sarah Towne of the firm Baker Tilly that did the study, elaborated during her presentation to Alamance County’s commissioners: “I did not get into this business to take money away from local government employees. 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,” she went on to assure the county’s governing board.  “[But] we may red circle or freeze an employee’s current salary.”

Let us emphasize that phrase yet again: “never recommend a pay decrease for any employee.”

That hardly seems like a prudent, dispassionate, or fair, salary study, in our judgment.

It’s a one-way street.  Everyone gets a raise, excepting those who are already overpaid.  But nobody gets docked for their higher salaries because they’re “overpaid.”

As a result of the study, the commissioners were hoodwinked, in our judgment, into voting, unanimously, to extend some form of salary increase 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 (January 1 through June 30) – or the equivalent of about 1.7 percent of the county’s overall payroll expense.

The full-year impact could contribute  toward a potential hike in the county’s future property tax rate.

As is the case too often in our judgment, commissioners are loose with the county’s purse strings in bestowing more and more raises, bonuses, and other benefits on county employees.

And this is supposed to be a conservative, Republican board?

This is just the latest “salary study,” but there will inevitably be more.

And we’re sure they will generally have the same outcome: more, more, more for government employees.

One would hope for something more truly objective and relevant.

But then that might not result in the kinds of increases that the county government invariably wants.

Taxpayers beware.

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