Not one person showed up during the public comment period of the May 20 meeting of the Dare County Board of Commissioners to speak about the county’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
But later in the meeting, the commissioners had plenty to say.
County employees also have opinions to share but spoke with Island Free Press on the condition of anonymity because of fears of retaliation. Few were in attendance toward the end of Monday’s meeting when talk turned back to the budget. The video isn’t posted yet nor has it been shown on the Government Channel, but word travels fast among employees and they aren’t liking what they are hearing.
“I’ve sat at this desk – or one like it – for more than two decades,” said a long-term county employee. “I’ve always been proud of what we do and been happy to work here. But now, the morale is about as bad as you can imagine. I don’t get why they can’t see how we are hurting financially in our private lives or why they seem to think we should thank them for cutting us so much. It’s not a good time to work for Dare County – things are ugly, and now they are trying to pit the ones at the bottom against the ones at the top – that’s awful. It’s not fun here anymore.”
Some commissioners are voicing opposition to County Manager Bobby Outten’s proposal to include a three percent cost of living allowance (COLA) for county employees and to contract for a new salary study, the results of which could be implemented over a period of a few years.
Not wanting to reduce services or increase taxes during the last few years, the county has sought to balance the budget, in part, by eliminating or freezing positions and by cutting employees’ fringe benefits.
The last COLA given to county employees was 1.5 percent for fiscal year 2008-09. Since then, said Outten, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) has gone up 9 percent. “So they’ve had no raise, and they’ve lost buying power.”
In 2009, the county reduced its contribution to employees’ 401K to 1 percent and cut both longevity and merit pay by half. In 2010, the 401K contribution was eliminated as was the merit pay.
An employee who has worked for the county for 12 years told Island Free Press that the cuts coupled with no raises is hurting her financially.
“When I bought my house in 2004, I was careful about thinking how I was going to pay for it and for my son’s college tuition that began a year ago,” she said. “I know that no one had a crystal ball to see what was going to happen to the economy, but I never expected to go backwards. Everything has gone up but with cutting the longevity pay, my income is less than I planned for. It is a struggle to try to keep up with everything.”
Outten, explaining the need to contract for a new salary study, told the board: “We have a problem with compression. New hires are making almost as much or the same as someone who has been here nine or 10 years. Then they [long term employees] can’t understand why someone new is making about the same. We are having to hire at higher levels to fill positions.”
Referring to a suggestion offered by Commissioner Bob Woodard, Commissioner Virginia Tillett wondered aloud if since the board isn’t in the position to give everyone a raise, if the employees would understand if just some received extra compensation.
Woolard suggested that only those making $40,000 and under receive a COLA.
“Why do we have to do a salary study? Can’t we figure that out ourselves?” asked Tillett.
“We can’t just compare a secretary to a secretary [somewhere else] – we have to know the tasks they perform. We were going to do another pay study a few years after the last one but couldn’t afford it,” said Outten.
Commissioner Richard Johnson strongly objected to both the COLA and the $42,000 to pay for the salary study being included in the budget.
“If we do a salary study, be ready for $1.5 million [increase in payroll],” said Johnson. “They [in the last salary study] compared us to Duck, not Currituck or Carteret. We can’t compete with the towns. People in the county are not as wealthy as they are in the towns. We are trying to adjust a budget – take the money and divide it and give everyone the same.
“I’m not going to vote for the budget because I won’t support a tax increase. Everyone is doing the same thing as five years ago. Our top people compete well when you compare to other counties – truck drivers are making the same. I’m not about to increase to revenue neutral and then add more on to it – we need to make government smaller.”
Cuts in staffing over the last few years have added tasks to many job descriptions in different departments. As an example, in Planning Department, the positions of zoning administrator and CAMA officer have been eliminated and those duties added to the work load of the county planner.
Commissioner Allen Burrus said it isn’t easy to compare to other counties. “I don’t want to take my trash to a dump – nothing against Currituck – I just don’t want to live like that. We can’t compare [to other counties] without looking at all of it.”
“I’m just making comments,” said Woodard, “just voicing my concerns. The 2013 MAPS study by the School of Government shows our salaries at 10 percent of the top, but Dare County has a 25 percent higher cost of living. In the private sector, the average salary is $37,500. Dare County’s average is $40,000.”
Woodard added that he would like to see raises go to the lower wage-earners. “Those are the ones I want to see helped,” he added, noting increases in insurance and other items. “I’m struggling with having a tax increase on top of the revenue neutral rate.”
Commissioner Jack Shea said that after his first review of the proposed budget, he didn’t think it could be cut any more. “Now, I think we should look for more savings.”
Johnson said that when the county employees’ wages and benefits are compared to what he received while working for Sprint, the county employees are doing well.
“To have a good job in this economy is a blessing. This salary study (School of Government’s MAP study) should be posted online so everyone can see it. I made the same [while working for Sprint] as those who worked in other counties even though we have a higher cost of living.
Commissioner Max Dutton said that each year the decision is made not to cut services. “But my one concern is that since 2008, nothing has been for the county employees except cuts. I don’t want to increase taxes, but I don’t want to cut services and hate not doing anything for employees. Why would you point out certain people not to give a raise to?”
“The revenue neutral rate is a tax increase on those who live west of the bypass,” said Johnson. “If we have to cut contributions to other groups to give our employees a raise – that’s fine,” he said referring to Special Appropriations.
Commission Chairman Warren Judge suggested if there were concerns about the donations to nonprofits, then the board could go through them and strike out what they disagreed with. No one indicated that they were willing to rise to the task.
Judge told the board that the members needed to give Outten some direction on what changes they want made to the budget.
Johnson said that the title of the budget is the County Manager’s Budget and that it is Outten’s responsibility to make changes.
State law mandates that it is the board’s responsibility to set the budget.
“We’ve hunkered down and stayed with the program during the recession, but it is time they stop saying that they can’t increase taxes to give us some relief,” said a county employee nearing retirement. “The argument that people can’t afford a tax increase – we pay taxes, too. And insurance and gas and groceries and doctor bills – and now we have to pay more toward our health insurance so our hole is getting deeper and deeper.”
He said that when he heard there are commissioners who think that the county employees don’t need or deserve a raise, his first thought was “This is the Kingdom of Dare.”
His second thought – some are saying “Let ‘em eat cake.”
Budget discussions will continue at the next Board of Commissioners meeting on Monday, June 3, at 9 a.m.