As staffing crisis grows, Cobb turns to employee bonuses and private contractors

Cobb Chairwoman Lisa Cupid delivers her annual state of the county address to the Cobb Chamber for its Marquee Monday event. (Photo by Karl L. Moore, provided by the Cobb Chamber)

Credit: Karl L. Moore/Mooreshots LLC

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Cobb Chairwoman Lisa Cupid delivers her annual state of the county address to the Cobb Chamber for its Marquee Monday event. (Photo by Karl L. Moore, provided by the Cobb Chamber)

Credit: Karl L. Moore/Mooreshots LLC

Cobb commissioners approved $1,500 employee retention bonuses for some divisions.

After months of refusing to intervene in Cobb County’s public sector staffing crisis before next year’s budget, commissioners last week decided they couldn’t afford to wait any longer.

At the June 14 board meeting, commissioners approved $1,500 bonuses for qualifying employees to prevent further departures in key departments at the request of county managers who said that staffing levels had reached a critical juncture.

The road maintenance division is down to just 53 workers out of a staff of 94, a 44% vacancy rate that’s caused work orders to pile up for weeks longer than usual, county officials say.

Pick a department, and the same story repeats itself. One in four park maintenance positions are vacant; one in three workers are gone from county water and sewer maintenance crews.

The one-time payments could cost the county up to $636,000, which will be funded with federal grant dollars set aside for local governments to recover from the pandemic. To qualify for the retention bonuses, employees in the targeted divisions, which also include building and vehicle maintenance workers and bus drivers, have to continue working for the county at least 12 more months.

Commissioners also agreed to spend $1 million to hire more private contractors to tackle the growing road maintenance backlog. Both votes were unanimous, with Chairwoman Lisa Cupid absent.

The county’s staffing woes will feature prominently in the county’s annual budget discussions later this summer. Commissioners have until the end of June to propose the property tax rate for next year. The tax rate and the budget for the 2023 fiscal year have to be finalized by the end of July.

Cupid, a Democrat, hasn’t released the final budget proposal, but in her annual address this week to the Cobb Chamber, she said employee pay would be a top priority.

“We’ve done a very good job of being efficient as a county. We’ve done a very good job keeping our taxes low,” Cupid told area business leaders at a breakfast held at the Coca-Cola Roxy theater. “But I’ll be honest, we’ve often done it on the backs of our employees.”

Cupid said her budget proposal will call for bringing all county employees up to “market-level pay,” after a study found that Cobb pays its workers around 8% less than similar counties in the Atlanta metro area. Even with higher pay, those counties are facing staffing challenges of their own in a tight labor market.

Cupid is also pushing to raise the minimum pay for county workers to $17 an hour. Today, the lowest paid full-time county employees make about $11.50 an hour, county spokesman Ross Cavitt said.

County finance officials have not yet released how much it will cost to fully fund Cupid’s pay proposal. The amount of employee raises would likely vary significantly by position, as the study found that some workers are paid more competitively than others.

Higher wages alone won’t be enough to restore county services to prior levels.

Earlier this year, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of county financial reports found that even if Cobb was fully staffed, it would not have kept up with the county’s population growth over the last two decades. Today, it budgets for 10% fewer workers per capita than it did in 2001, when the county had 143,000 fewer people.

County department heads requested 658 new positions in next year’s budget, after the county added just four this year.

It’s not yet clear how — or if — commissioners will attempt to fund all of them, but a property tax hike could be on the table.

With home values surging across the metro area, most Cobb homeowners will see their tax bills go up, even if the millage rates don’t change. However, because of a county homestead exemption, much of the increase in property values won’t translate to additional revenue for the county’s general fund, which pays for most county personnel and operational costs.