Board of commissioners approves nearly $9 million in raises for county employees

Macon County Courthouse photo by Vickie Carpenter

Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer

For the last decade, county commissioners in Macon County have struggled to address competitive compensation for county employees. When compared to most Western North Carolina counties, Macon County ranked near the bottom for county salaries, which often led to retention and recruitment issues in various departments. 

As of May 12 of this year, Macon County had 50 vacant positions spread across numerous departments. The majority of these vacancies were within priority areas of the operating budget such as health and human services (Public Health, 7; DSS,11); and Public Safety (EMS, 7; Telecommunications,1;  Sheriff, 12) who provide critical services to Macon County residents. Macon County Manager Derek Roland informed commissioners that as of Tuesday, Macon County reported 47 vacancies across county departments with 21 of those vacancies being in public safety and 18 being in health and human services. 

“We are at a point that without something being done, we are looking at having to reduce the services we are able to provide to the citizens of Macon County,” Roland said. “We are one of the few counties in the state that never stopped any services during COVID19, with some counties still providing a reduction in services. But with the vacancies we have within our emergency services department and the vacancies within the Sheriff’s Office, we very well may need to reduce the services and responses possible due to staffing shortage.” 

In February, Macon County began working with Gallagher Consulting to perform a compensation and classification study. The purpose of the study was to design and implement a market aligned pay structure that would be effective in the recruitment process and maintain internal equity within the organization to aid in retention. The results of the study showed that Macon County’s salary ranges for 77 benchmark positions representing all functions in the organization to be an average of 7‐9 percent below market levels when compared to a peer group of 22 similar counties and municipalities.

The county set aside $1,232,183 in the fiscal year budget to implement the recommendations from the study once finalized — which was presented to commissioners Tuesday night. 

The new county pay scale and classification system that was presented updated position classifications across the board for county positions to make Macon County externally competitive. While the county has completed other pay studies in the past — such as the Springstead Study complete in 2016, the implementation failed to address internal discrepancies such as compensation for years of services. The pay scale Roland presented Tuesday night ensured county salaries will now be internally equitable by placing each position within pay grade dependent on an employee years of service. 

Nearly every county employee will see a salary increase ranging from $1,000 to upwards of $5,000 depending on position and years of service. The implementation of the new pay study will begin immediately and will be completed within existing funds in the county’s budget. 

Although Commissioner Josh Young and Commissioner Paul Higdon voted against the budget in June because of the increased funding for county employee raises, both commissioners voted for the final plan Tuesday night, allowing the new pay scale to pass unanimously. 

Premium pay 

In addition to the new pay scale for county employees, Roland proposed utilizing the county’s $6.9 million allocation of federal COVID19 relief funding to provide premium pay for all county employees through October 2024. 

Western North Carolina counties began receiving another $156.5 million in American Recovery Plan Act funds, through the Biden administration in September, which was in addition to the $1.7 billion in CARES Act funding from the Trump administration in response to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

Macon County received $6.9 million in COVID Relief Funds, which come with restrictions on how they can be spent. Jackson County received $8.5 million, Haywood County received $12 million, Graham County received $1.6 million, Clay County received $2.1 million, Cherokee County received $5.5 million, and Swain County received $2.7 million. 

The Department of Treasury issued guidance detailing its interpretation and implementation of eligible uses, but the statutory language specifically authorizes use of the funds. Each of the following is a separate allowable use of the funds for the recipient:

• To respond to the pandemic or its negative economic impacts, including assistance to households, small businesses, and nonprofits, or aid to impacted industries such as tourism, travel, and hospitality;

• For premium pay to eligible workers performing essential work (as determined by each recipient government) during the pandemic, providing up to $13 per hour above regular wages;

• For the provision of government services to the extent of the reduction in revenue due to the pandemic (relative to revenues collected in the most recent full fiscal year prior to the emergency);

• To make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure;

The language explicitly prohibits funds from being deposited into a pension fund. States and territories are also prohibited from using the funds to offset, either directly or indirectly, a tax cut made since March 3, 2021.

Each county is responsible for deciding how the funds can be spent. Graham County announced in August, that all full-time county nurses and EMS staff will receive a one-time lump sum bonus of $25,000. Roland stated that due to state statutory limitations on the function of N.C. governments, the county would be limited on which of the allowable uses can be utilized. 

With the strict guidelines associated with the funding, and the need to provide an incentive to address county staffing shortage, Roland made the recommendation to allocate the full $6.9 million for premium pay for all county employees by providing all part-time and full-time county employees with a $2 per hour premium pay bonus until October 2024. The premium pay bonuses will be paid out in seven lump sums over the time period it remains in effect. 

According to Roland, unlike other counties, Macon County’s plan provides employees with premium pay spread out over several years rather than one lump sum. The plan was designed to address the current staffing shortage but also provide retention and recruitment incentives in the years to come. 

The premium plan policy was unanimously approved by commissioners and will be retroactive dating back to April 26, 2021.