President Jerry Carl has said before that attendance at Mobile County Commission meetings tends to increase significantly as budget decisions draw closer, and that theory held true this week as dozens of public employees filled seats to get an expected piece of good news.
As part of its $153 million budget for fiscal year 2020, the Mobile County Commission included and approved one of its largest pay hikes in more than a decade — a 7.5 percent cost of living adjustment that all of the county’s 1,620 employees could be feeling the effects of in less than a week.
The news was met with cheers from the crowd, at least two of whom had even brought pompoms.
“When I joined the commission in 2012 we had a shortfall of money and were looking at cutting hours back. All I can say is we’ve come a long way, baby!” Carl said during the meeting Monday. “We all agreed it was going to happen, we just had to figure out how, and this was because of the employees.”
Over the past several years, Mobile County has made up for stagnant wages during the 2008 recession with incremental increases for its employees — typically 5 percent a year in 2.5 percent chunks. Finance Director Dana Foster-Allen said a larger raise and slightly larger overall budget in 2020 were made possible because of increased revenues, eliminated debts and efforts to reduce expenditures elsewhere.
Carl echoed the sentiments after the budget was approved, adding that the county’s budget only increased by $1 million (about 1 percent) from this time last year. Yet, he said the pay raise expected to cost more than $6.1 million was made possible this year by working with employees to reduce existing expenditures.
“This happened because all of our department heads sat down with their own budgets and trimmed where they could. Some of that truly was fat that we can do without, and we’re going to prove it this year,” Carl said. “Most people don’t realize that the county has actually downsized in recent years. In 2012 we had 1,697 employees, now we’re down to 1,620 and providing better service.”
Commissioner Connie Hudson said the latest raise would bring Mobile County closer to its goal of offering salaries that are within “93 percent of the market” for those particular jobs, and specifically said it should help the Mobile County Sheriff’s office (MCSO) with recruiting and retaining employees.
Sheriff Sam Cochran said a 7.5 percent increase would help recruiting brand new officers, but also would make a position with MCSO more attractive to experience deputies and corrections officers from other cities and counties.While some strides have been made in recent months, Cochran said his office is still understaffed by 16 deputies and 31 corrections officers.
“Positions in law enforcement are very competitive across the country and certainly here locally,” Cochran said. “Entities in Mobile County wind up cannibalizing each other because [due to personnel board rules] we can’t bring somebody with experience in from outside of our system and start them out higher than the minimum starting salary in that position.”
In addition to the pay increase, the county’s 2020 budget also contains an increase in appropriations of more than $1 million. That increase will set $500,000 aside for the county’s soccer complex, $500,000 for upgrades at Ladd-Peebles Stadium and $500,000 for local courts.
Among other allocations, the budget also includes $250,000 for the University of South Alabama’s (USA) on-campus football stadium.
That allocation is part of a $2.5 million, 10-year commitment the county made last year to help develop USA’s stadium after plans for it and the city to contribute a combined $20 million fell through due to a lack of support.
The allocation to Ladd-Peebles will help addresses issues of inadequate fire suppression and a lack of handicapped access points. The stadium is owned by the city of Mobile, which recently allocated $750,000 toward improving it, but Carl said it is enjoyed by county residents at events year-round.
“I’ve not talked to the mayor or the council about this specifically. Our allocation was based on direct conversations with the [Ladd-Peebles Stadium board],” Carl said. “We still have two major bowl games there and several high school games. So, we’ve got to make sure it’s safe.”
The $500,000 allocation to the Mobile County Soccer Complex, which began construction on its $4 million first phase in May, will help fund the development of an additional field. Currently, the first phase is on track to build out three regulation-sized fields. Hudson, who has spearheaded the project, said the focus is currently on building fields so the complex can be utilized as soon as possible.
Currently, construction of phase one is scheduled to be completed in January though the fields won’t be playable until at least March. After that the county is looking to begin construction of a “championship field,” which will have stadium seating and other amenities that make it suitable for use in tournaments.
Hudson said she recently requested that the city of Mobile, which has yet to contribute anything to the complex monetarily, consider allocating $1.7 million from its upcoming budget for the championship field. She said the complex is located within the city, which is also expected to generate revenue from it.
“I have high hopes that somebody will include this item as a budget allocation, but I don’t know. I never got any feedback from Mayor [Sandy Stimpson], but I’m hopeful the [Mobile City] Council might see fit to include that,” Hudson told Lagniappe. “By year four, they’ll be making well over a half million in tax revenue off of this facility, and I just think it’s reasonable for them to contribute to the project.”
City officials have not said whether they’re considering an additional allocation to the county project. Due to a continuing legal fight between the mayor and council, the city has yet to approve its 2020 budget.
More information about the county’s fiscal year 2020 budget is available at lagniappemobile.com.
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