October 28, 2004By BOB PEPALIS
Forsyth County employees will receive as much as 5.5 percent in raises in 2005 if a preliminary budget proposal brought before the Board of Commissioners on Oct. 18 is approved.
Commissioners said all staff should receive 2.5 percent cost of living pay increases. However, the remaining 3 percent in available raises depend on merit.
Chief Financial Office Jeff Quesenberry led a presentation of a $63.6 million county budget for 2005. The board will schedule three public hearings before adopting the budget. No millage rate hikes are planned.
Quesenberry and Pat Carson, director of Human Resources, sought direction from the board on salary and staffing proposals made by department heads for the budget. The commissioners raised the proposed 5 percent cost of living/merit increase proposal to 5.5 percent, as long as the budget remains revenue neutral.
Commissioner A.J. Pritchett said the budget amount sounded high, particularly since the county expects a $3 million surplus at the end of the year. He questioned how the revenue projections could be so far off.
Commission Chairman Jack Conway said last year the commission was told with a tax freeze there was no way the county would end the year with a surplus.
Quesenberry said his predecessor was extremely conservative in revenue calculations, even leaving some sources of revenue off the budget. The 2004 budget only calculated receiving 95 percent of property tax revenues. He said the previous chief financial officer should have know the county would get 100 percent of revenues off the tax digest because if a property owner fails to pay taxes, the county can take the property and sell it to pay for those taxes. And with county growth averaging 8 percent for the last few years, the projected revenues were even lower than should have been expected.
Quesenberry said he sees this year as an opportunity to bring staff levels and salaries to appropriate levels.
Much time was spent discussing the salary levels of Forsyth County employees compared to neighboring counties. Forsyth has lower pay than most of the counties, and much lower levels in some areas, such as Fleet Maintenance.
"What we're doing is becoming a training ground for Cherokee and Gwinnett," Quesenberry said.
In one case, he said the county spend $12,000 in three years training an Information Technology employee, only to see him go to work for another county with a salary $13,000 higher.
Forsyth County's policy to start all new employees at the minimum salary as established for each position under Civil Service has added to this problem. The county is forced to hire employees with little experience, which means training is required.
Carson said the county needs to perform a survey of all employee salary levels every four or five years, comparing them to other counties and industries. She said this is planned for 2005.
Commissioners were concerned with employee pay, but did not feel obligated to be the highest-paying county.
Commissioners were told the supplements are paid to several state employees, such as judges and their secretaries, magistrates and probate judges. While the supplements to their state salaries cannot be halted during the elected officials' terms, the county could make a change when a new official comes into office.
"Are we mandated by law to pay a supplement?" Commissioner Marcie Kreager asked.
Quesenberry said no, but it is the norm across the state.
Forsyth County supplements are not the highest in the area.
Areas Quesenberry said will have to be examined include SPLOST (Special Local Option Sales Tax) revenues, which are lower than expected, and spending money to bring county buildings up to building specifications so they do not have to pay a fortune on major repairs and renovations.
The finance and human resources staff will work suggestions by the commissioners into the budget proposal and bring it back to the board.