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Hartselle Enquirer

Morgan workers to get pay adjustment, 2 percent COLA in proposed budget

By Michael Wetzel

For the Enquirer

Morgan County employees would get a 2 percent cost-of-living raise and would reach the top pay for their positions more quickly under a preliminary fiscal 2023 general fund budget that several officials said would make the county a more attractive place to work.

The preliminary budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 was presented to the County Commission by Chairman Ray Long this week and projects a $1.2 million increase, to $28.1 million, over fiscal 2022.

The primary revenue generator in the budget is a 13.4 percent increase in property tax revenue, with collections projected to increase from $11.6 million this year to $13.15 million in fiscal 2023. There are also decreases in revenue, including a projected drop in money paid by county municipalities and the federal government for housing inmates at Morgan County Jail.

The budget reduces the number of steps for merit raises from 19 to 10. That proposed change would make the pay increase greater at each step and allow an employee potentially to reach maximum pay in 10 years.

Long said the change was made to attract and keep good employees. He said adjusting the pay steps for the county’s 400 or so employees was time-consuming, but guaranteed all workers will be receiving a raise aside from the 2 percent COLA. The merit pay scale adjustment is costing about $230,000 and the COLA is costing $250,000 more in fiscal 2023, he said.

“Insurance costs for the county are up, inmate medical costs are up, fuel costs are up and we’re still able to give that 2% COLA,” he said. “The pay adjustment from 19 to 10 steps varies per employee. Nobody went backward. If you were close to a step raise, you may get a 4-cents-an-hour increase. Some employees might see 40 cents or 50 cents an hour.”

He said only six employees are currently topped out in the 19-step pay scale.

“Pay hikes go up a lot quicker when you don’t have that many steps,” Long said. “It’s an incentive for the employees. And you can’t find many (work) places who haven’t gone up on insurance premiums in 13 or 14 years. We haven’t. We’re doing what we can for our employees.”

Morgan County is self-insured and is experiencing rising insurance costs but hasn’t passed the increase onto its workers, Long said. County records show in 2019 the county paid $3.709 million for health insurance. In fiscal 2020, it grew to $4.145 million, and $4.663 million in fiscal 2021. At the beginning of August with two full months left in this fiscal year, the county has paid $4.991 million.

In an attempt to curb those increases, the commission on July 26 voted to change its health plan administrator and enter into an agreement with Granular, headquartered in Philadelphia, that began Aug. 1 and runs through Sept. 30, 2023.

District 1 Commissioner Jeff Clark and District 2 Commissioner Randy Vest said they support reducing the merit steps to 10.

“Some of the people we have interviewed are coming in from the private sector. When we have 19 steps, you are looking at 19 years (to top out),” Vest said. “Moving it back to 10 makes it more attractive, especially for the younger workers. When I came in we had an older age of employees. Through attrition, a lot of those have left. Most now are younger with 10 years or less. We can afford to do this now.”

Clark said 19 years is “like a lifetime to younger employees.”

“Going to 10 years is more in line with what the private sector does. A lot of private companies are even on three-year plans. We can’t do that, but we used to have the 10-year plan and I think it is good to come back to it.”

The county workers did not receive a merit step increase in fiscal 2022, but the commission voted in October to pay about $2 million in employee bonuses — $5,120 each for full-time and about $3,500 for part-time workers — with COVID-related funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Long said about half of the general fund’s proposed $28.1 million budget will pay for Sheriff’s Office and jail operations.

“Sheriff (Ron) Puckett does a good job with his budget every year,” Long said. “It takes a lot of money to run the jail and his department.”

Clark said the Sheriff’s Office and jail expenses are unavoidable.

“We know that is a given every year,” he said. “Larry Bennich (former commission chairman) said one time, ‘If everyone would act right, it would save a lot of money, but people don’t and does it cost money.’ It’s not getting any cheaper for law enforcement either. I think this will be a good budget for the sheriff.”

Some organizations are receiving more appropriations if the preliminary fiscal 2023 budget passes as proposed.

The Decatur Morgan County Chamber of Commerce will see an increase from $50,000 to $65,000. The Decatur Public Library’s appropriation will climb from $75,000 to $80,000. The county cooperative extension will go from $45,000 to $55,000 and the Child Advocacy Center will see an increase from $6,500 to $10,000.

Long said he will meet with department heads Aug. 29 and 30 and present an updated budget to the commission for approval Aug. 31.