The County Commission voted 4-1 on Tuesday to approve Chairman Tim Lee’s plan to give employees a 3 percent across-the-board pay hike totaling $4.5 million.
The raises for the county’s 4,182 full-time and 782 part-time employees will be the first in five years and no doubt will be welcomed. As Lee has said, they have been “busting their butts” on behalf of the county.
We don’t doubt that. But private-sector employees in Cobb have been working just as hard, or harder. The fact is that the private sector has been doing more with less than ever before. And for the most part, the private sector has been foregoing raises or end-of-year bonuses for years.
ONE THING IS FOR SURE in the wake of the recent presidential election: Taxes for most of Americans soon will be going up. The cost of living will keep going up, too.
Moreover, Obamacare looks like it is here to stay — and businesses are quietly but most assuredly slashing payroll and expenses in preparation for it.
There is a growing distrust of government at all levels across the country. Cobb and its six cities can do their part to help rebuild that trust by keeping the taxpayers’ interest first. That means continuing to look for ways to shrink government and lower taxes — not ways of growing the two.
That lack of trust could have important implications on future SPLOST votes as well. The most recent county SPLOST passed by just 89 votes, and many are already speculating that the school SPLOST coming in March will be DOA. Handing out thousands of raises totaling millions of dollars during a time of such economic uncertainty sends the message that government is more important than taxpayers. That’s a message that’s been delivered far too often through the years.
LEE’S PAY RAISES are being funded by a $4.5 million surplus in the county’s medical and dental account. Meanwhile, the county enjoyed a budget surplus of nearly $18 million in FY12, which ended Sept. 30. That’s a welcome development after several years of seeing the budget and tax digest hammered by the recession.
But let’s not forget that the commission raised the property tax rate last year, although Lee says the tax hike had no bearing on the resulting surplus.
Lee and the commission agreed on Tuesday to give back a small piece of that increase to taxpayers. The general fund millage will be cut by 0.2 mills. And he says he hopes to keep rolling the millage back by 0.2 mills per year till it gets back to the 9.6 mills, where it was before last year’s increase.
We hope if excess funds are found in the future, the commission will see fit to accelerate the 5-year rollback plan in favor of the taxpayer.
Also on Tuesday, the Commission took welcome steps to deep-six a proposed water-rate fee increase that had been planned for January.
LEE REASSURED his fellow commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting that “leading economists” had told him the pay raises are sustainable. Is he “whistling past the graveyard”? Perhaps. After all, economist Albert W. Niemi Jr., dean of the business school at SMU, told Cobb business leaders at an annual business forecast breakfast Tuesday at the Cobb Performing Arts Center that the economy will not rebound to pre-recession numbers until 2025. Moreover, the White House and Congress seem determined to send the country “off the fiscal cliff,” which could send the economy back into free-fall. And more layoffs are expected at one of the county’s biggest private employers, Lockheed Martin.
All in all, it’s a dicey scenario in which to be coughing up across-the-board raises. The better approach would have been to hand out year-end bonuses, as suggested by southeast Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott and others. They would have rewarded employees without committing the county — and taxpayers — for years to come.
“We don’t know what funds will be available in the future,” Ott said. “Yes, there are some economic indicators that show recovery. However, in light of upcoming changes to the tax laws and health care, the county needs to ensure those indicators remain strong before committing to a permanent change in the salary structure.”
But instead, Lee and the other four commissioners decided to splurge and hand out raises — “a gift that keeps giving.” And it’s Cobb taxpayers who will be doing the giving.