Bertie board changes budget

Published 4:55 pm Friday, June 23, 2023

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WINDSOR – A new operating budget for Bertie County local government has yet to be formally adopted, but it will include a three percent salary increase for most all of its employees.

It took two motions and much debate from the county commissioners to approve that pay hike at their meeting here Tuesday evening.

At a previous meeting, County Manager Juan Vaughan II said his proposed budget did not include an across the board raise. However, he noted a plan to increase the county’s minimum starting salary to $11 per hour ($21,450 annually) for employees listed on the general salary schedule. To alleviate salary compression, his plan included salary adjustments for 73 individuals

On May 31, the commissioners reviewed the recommended budget and made a few changes, to include providing a $500 bonus for 43 employees on the general salary schedule who were not eligible based on their years of service.

At a public hearing on June 5, several citizens and county employees expressed concerns over the salary adjustments.

On June 7, the commissioners met again but made no decision to further amend the budget based upon the citizens/employees comments.

“At this point, I need direction from the board on how the budget should be finalized so that a budget ordinance can be prepared and finalized by June 30,” Vaughan stated at Tuesday’s meeting.

Commission Chairman Ron Wesson said the board did not originally wish to raise ad valorem taxes, especially in a year where the fire tax was being implemented. At the same time, the board expressed a desire to raise the salaries on the general schedule for those making less than $11 per hour and the compression rate of those just above $11 per hour.

Bertie County local government operates on three salary schedules: one for the Sheriff’s Office, one for Emergency Medical Services, and one for general staff.

“We felt like that was all we could do [adjusting the salaries for those making less than $11 per hour] without raising taxes,” Wesson stated. “But we came to the public hearing and the citizens loudly told us that they wanted us to roll up our sleeves and do more for all our employees, to include the Sheriff’s Office and EMS. The problem was how do we do that without adding a [property] tax increase.”

Wesson then unveiled a plan that would allow for an across the board cost of living increase for all county employees, except EMTs, without raising taxes. That was in addition to raising the salaries for those currently making less than $11 per hour. Wesson said that would cost the county $132,000.

For EMTs, he proposed “step scale” increases that total $85,000. He also proposed to increase the annual salary (by two percent or $1,500) of Emergency Services Director Mitch Cooper. The total cost of Wesson’s proposal is $218,500.

Wesson said to pay for that without raising taxes, he proposes to delay purchasing the two new EMS ambulances that are already a part of Vaughan’s proposed budget until funding is generated through an upcoming sale of surplus property owned by the county.

“We know we can raise [through the sale] more than the $232,000 that it would take to replace those two ambulances,” Wesson said. “So we’re asking EMS to hold off ordering those new trucks for a couple of months until the sale of the surplus property. By doing that I think we can give deserving raises to our employees.”

While he favored the proposed raises for all county employees, Commissioner John Trent expressed concern about delaying the purchase of the two ambulances. He noted the high mileage (250,000 miles) on the two current vehicles in need of replacement and worried about possible mechanical breakdowns.

“We’re just kicking the can down the road,” Trent said. “Mr. Cooper commented that he can keep these trucks rolling, but I’m nervous about that. We need to replace these trucks just as soon as we can.”

Commission Vice Chair Michael White asked if those receiving a pay bump up to a minimum of $11 per hour are also eligible to receive the three percent across the board salary hike?

“It can be done,” said Vaughan.

“And we’ve found a way to do that without raising taxes,” Wesson stressed.

White added that he wished the pay schedules for the county’s general staff were set-up similar to the EMS step scale method.

“That step pay schedule rewards employees for their years of experience, without doing that is a shame,” he said.

“That’s exactly what we need to migrate to, but we can’t do it overnight because of the cost of that,” Wesson replied. “Mike is right, we will get there [with the step scale].”

White and Commissioner Corey Ballance Sr. asked for clarification about the salary hikes, especially the additional two percent raise for Cooper.

“Are there any other directors receiving an extra two percent,” White inquired.

“Not to my knowledge,” Vaughan answered.

Trent then made a motion to move forward with Wesson’s proposal.

“All of the directors need to be included,” said Commissioner Ron Roberson.

“We can’t do it, we don’t have the money,” Wesson noted. “We would have to cut someplace else.”

Roberson asked Vaughan if he favored signaling out just one department head (Cooper) for an additional two percent raise along with the across the board three percent hike.

“To be fair, unless there’s a justifiable reason to signal out one department head, I propose that all department heads are treated the same,” Vaughan answered.

With that, Wesson offered a second to Trent’s motion, saying that “his [Cooper] leadership needs to be recognized for what he was willing to give up [immediate purchase of two new ambulances] so that the money could be used for across the board salary increases. The extra two percent raise for Mr. Cooper was my request.”

“There’s no deal here; if you don’t like it then don’t vote for it,” Wesson added.

Trent’s motion was defeated by a 3-2 vote with Ballance, Roberson, and White opposing the measure.

Ballance then motioned to accept Wesson’s proposal minus Cooper’s individual two percent raise. White offered a second and the motion passed by a 5-0 vote.

With this approved amendment to the overall proposed FY 23-24 budget, Vaughan said he will now make those changes to the budget ordinance. The board decided to recess this meeting until 9 a.m. on Tuesday, June 27 at which time they can review those changes and possibly adopt the new budget, which must be in place by June 30.

Vaughan’s original budget proposal kept the current ad valorem tax rate intact at 86.5 cents per $100 of property value. However, the Bertie County Fire Protection Service District was proposed for rural areas of the county as well as all towns except Windsor, which carries a 0.3762 cent tax rate.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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