Gwinnett proposes raises for workers

When commission Chairman Charlotte Nash recommended county employees get a 4 percent pay raise in 2015, it was not because Gwinnett is flush with extra cash.

In order to give workers a raise, Gwinnett will not be able to hire five animal control workers, add two part-time magistrate judges, create an information security management division or give the library system the money it needs to make its hours uniform across all branches.

But since salaries have been frozen since 2009, Nash said, it was important to her to stop the pay stagnation and incentivize workers to stay. Employees got a 3 percent “market adjustment” this year, but otherwise, salaries had stayed put.

“It’s a movement in the right direction,” Nash said. “We can’t unwind all the things that happened over the last six years all at once.”

Attrition has been a problem in the county, particularly for public safety workers and jobs that are in demand in the private sector, like IT. In presentations earlier this fall, police and fire leaders emphasized the need to give pay raises that would help keep workers and improve morale.

“I heard so much about the ones we were losing, good people, we had to stop the bleeding there,” said Roger Willis, a retired district manager from Jackson EMC who sat on Gwinnett’s budget committee. “I don’t want to wait and find out all our good people had gone to another county.”

Nash said she and others saw the pay increase as “critical,” even though the $7.3 million that will be spent on raises kept her from approving other worthy requests.

County commissioners still have to approve the pay increase as part of the $1.05 billion budget in January, but if they do, all sworn employees — police, fire, corrections and the sheriff’s office — will get what is known as a step increase. The step increase is a guaranteed pay raise that moves them up a rung on the salary ladder.

All other employees operate in pay bands, and will get a raise if they have satisfactory performance at their annual review. Deputy Human Resources director Sandra Sheppard said more than 90 percent of the county’s 4,466 employees would be eligible.

Sgt. James Redfern, who has been with the sheriff’s office for more than 13 years, said the long absence of raises had an effect on the mood of employees. Raises would “definitely be a morale booster,” he said, and would help cover the costs of workers who have been squeezed as prices rose, but their salaries did not.

“Most people I know, they’ve made it work,” he said, “but I think it’s a great thing. It’s been a long time coming.”

The raise, if it goes through, will not solve the problem of pay compression. Public safety and other workers who have been with the county for four years now make the same amount of money as those who have been there for one, and their extra experience will not be rewarded when raises are given.

Nash said she is trying to address that discrepancy over the next several years.

“This doesn’t solve all the issues related to pay,” she said.

Only time will tell if the effort will help reduce the county’s recent 10 percent attrition rate to a more typical 7 percent, Sheppard said. Retention has been particularly challenging because the improving economy has given people more job opportunities than they had through the recession. And the private sector can typically pay more than local governments can.

With a pay increase, Nash said, Gwinnett is taking a stand against potential competitors.

“We’re hoping to hold our own,” she said. “We’re positioning ourselves better.”

Sheriff Butch Conway said through a spokeswoman that he was “very pleased and appreciative” for the planned increase, which will help his department “in retaining and attracting quality staff.” Capt. Tommy Rutledge, a spokesman for the fire department, said “as bad as things have been in the past,” the pay raise would help individuals and families improve their quality of life.

Even with the raises, Gwinnett continues to be conservative. The county expects its new growth to be an “anemic” .7 percent, Nash said, and the total value of the county’s tax digest in 2015 remains $3 billion lower than the 2008 peak.

That’s led to the county playing catch-up as its population has grown and services have increased faster than the county’s ability to fund positions.

“There were lots of requests for which there is good justification that could not be funded,” Nash said. “The problem is with population growing as rapidly as it is, it’s like we’re chasing a moving target. The merry-go-round continues to go while we’re trying to chase it.”