York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant says he is losing good officers to higher-paying agencies - something that has rarely happened in the past - and might have had a talented candidate pass up a job because of a three-year county pay freeze.
Bryant's concerns came after the York County Council voted down a plan Monday night to give county employees a one-time pay increase.
"The main thing that's going to be on my budget for next year will be trying to get a raise for my employees," he said. "I wanted you to be aware of the retention problem that we are now experiencing."
Councilmen Bump Roddey, Chad Williams and David Bowman voted for the one-time payments, arguing that county staff haven't seen merit or cost-of-living raises in three years.
Withholding pay increases, laying off employees and asking remaining staff to carry the load could hinder the county's ability to retain quality employees, they argued.
Under the proposal, full-time employees of the county, the convention and visitors bureau and the library and museum systems would have received $500. Employees working less than 20 hours a week would have received $250.
The payment would have been a "retention incentive," encouraging the employee to stay with the county. The payment is different than a bonus given for performance, which the county cannot legally offer, County Manager Jim Baker said Tuesday.
But Chairman Britt Blackwell and Councilmen Eric Winstead, Bruce Henderson and Curwood Chappell opposed the payments, arguing that now isn't the time to consider employee perks.
People and businesses are still suffering, and next year's budget talks are coming soon, they said.
Bowman and Williams on Monday asked the council to approve the plan and send it on to a public hearing before a final vote, but the motion failed.
In budget talks earlier this year, Roddey and Williams supported employee raises or showing them some form of "appreciation." All other councilmen said they weren't comfortable with giving raises with unemployment high and the economy slow.
Some council members said they might reconsider later in the year after seeing how the county's financial outlook panned out.
Roddey said the time is now - when the county is enjoying a $43 million surplus, which staff helped create - to reward employees. That surplus is higher than expected, officials said.
"What, do we need $80 million to give a $500 bonus?" Roddey said. "What more is it going to take to say we are in good shape? Regardless of what Washington is doing, regardless of what unemployment is doing, we have good employees who have bent over backwards" for the county.
"And we have people crying over $500 or less to give to our employees? I'm all for cutting if it makes sense. I'm all for spending if it makes sense. And this retention incentive makes sense."
Chappell said he couldn't support a plan to give more money to county employees who have jobs, while many taxpayers don't. York County's unemployment rate fell to 11.1 percent in November, down from 15.2 percent a year ago.
The middle of a budget cycle isn't the time to bring up the question of employee raises, Blackwell said, and not doing so was a matter of having respect for the council and the proper way of doing things.
"We cannot keep revisiting a budget we voted on in June over and over and over again if I have any respect for this body," he said. "It's not how it's done. I've never seen it done in 13 years now on a governing body - ever.
"But it seems like every two months we're trying to figure out another way to do this. I understand the administration may not be happy with what we decided in that vote, but it needs to be respected. We as a council need to respect it."
Monday night was the first time since budget talks in June that any council member has brought forward a proposal to give employee raises, County Manager Jim Baker said.
Henderson challenged employees to root out "real waste" in the budget and "hold my feet to the fire" when the next budget comes around, but he couldn't support the plan now, having only a week to decide.
To keep good people
Williams said the issue comes down to trying to hang onto quality employees.
"The people that we compete with can offer better salaries," he said, and York County residents are able to find jobs in neighboring counties. "It's getting closer and closer to losing good people if we haven't already - and the best people go first."
That's already happening, Bowman said, citing losses at the sheriff's office.
"Our taxpayers, they want services," he said. "They want a quality sheriff's deputy to show up when it's time to show up. We got that, and we've got to keep it."
Some county employees throughout several departments have been offered jobs with higher salaries, Baker said Tuesday, but the retention issue hasn't manifested "across the board."
The problem mostly affects departments whose employees are in higher demand, such as law enforcement and information technology, he said.
During public comment at the meeting's end, Sheriff Bryant shared his concern that quality employees are leaving for better opportunities with competing agencies.
The Sheriff's Office has never had that problem before now, he said.
Bryant said he conducted exit interviews with employees who recently left. One left for a private security job with a $10,000 pay increase, he said.
The only reason he was revisiting the idea of pay increases for employees, Bryant said, was because council members said earlier this year they'd revisit the matter "midstream."
Bryant thanked the council for voting honestly, but said he plans on "fighting for the York County Sheriff's Office" when budget time returns.
Later, Bryant said, it's unusual to lose three quality employees in just 60 days.
No pay increases might have gotten in the way of a new hire, he said.
A candidate for a nurse's position Bryant interviewed recently asked about merit raises, he said. That person have decided not to take the job, he said, possibly after learning there were none.