Pinellas County employees have not had a pay raise in five years, a hardship that County Administrator Robert LaSala says has made it tougher for the county to recruit and retain workers.
The county, though, also faces a budget shortfall of at least $12 million, and that could mean higher property taxes for residents.
County officials are not set to finalize their 2014 budget until this summer, but on Tuesday commissioners will discuss a proposal to boost salaries for county workers using money from the county’s reserve fund. The proposal, from Commissioner Norm Roche, is not expected to garner much support but has raised the question of whether the county can afford pay increases for its roughly 4,900 workers.
A 1-percent pay raise for county workers would cost roughly $3 million. The average salary of non-supervisory county workers, which includes most maintenance and administrative staff, is roughly $44,000.
County workers did get a one-time bonus of 1 percent last year, but five years without a raise has left county salaries below market levels, said Jack Loring, the county’s human resources manager. That has created problems attracting and keeping workers in fields such information technology, where more lucrative salaries are available in the private sector.
“Overall, I think we’re probably behind the market,” Loring said. “There are problems with trying to recruit and retain, yet alone with rewarding aging employees. We want folks to feel they’re well-compensated.”
The county plans to compare county salaries to market rates using data from the Economic Research Institute, which aggregates salaries from private companies.
“We should be able to justify it in the court of public opinion based on market conditions,” said LaSala.
In addition to a salary freeze, the county has cuts jobs and left others unfilled, meaning most county workers have taken on more duties in the last few years,
“Every single one of our staff are doing two or three times the workload they were doing three or five years ago,” said Commissioner Janet Long. “There is a finite limit beyond which, if you’re not careful, you’re going to burn everyone out.”
Roche said he would like to see employees get a 3-percent raise using the $12 million annual savings in salary costs that resulted from state lawmaker’s 2011 decision to require public workers to contribute 3 percent to their retirements.
Using the reserve fund would avoid the perception that taxes are being raised to pay for salary hikes, he said.
“I don’t want people to think we’re giving a raise and this is why we’re raising taxes,” Roche said. “It’s become more prudent for us to identify why we’re raising taxes and what it’s paying for.”
County officials say those funds already have been used to avoid making further cuts to services.
The sensitivity over tax increases is understandable. County commissioners are also considering introducing a new storm-water fee for residents in unincorporated parts of the county and may have to raise taxes to pay for higher EMS costs.
Next year, Pinellas residents will also be asked to consider a one penny sales tax hike to pay for improved transit and a light-rail network.
Employees deserve a raise, Commissioner Susan Latvala said. She also wants to see more staff added to some county departments that she said were cut too much, such as Animal Services. Some residents who report dangerous dogs in their neighborhoods have had to wait three days for Animal Services to send out workers to get the dogs, she said.
“The big question is are we comfortable raising taxes to maintain a level of service – that’s the issue,” said Commissioner Susan Latvala.