The Mobile County Commission has approved a $132 million budget for fiscal year 2017 that makes room for a 2.5 percent pay raise and one-time bonuses of $1,000 for county employees.

In 2014, employees received their first raise in seven years. Since then, the county has been consistent in prioritizing merit increases in yearly increments of 2.5 percent to 5 percent.

As usual, though, this year’s budget discussions raised questions about whether a one-time bonus provides a true incentive that can attract and retain quality employees.

On Monday, Cpl. Pamela Lafitte with the Mobile County Merit System Employees Association told commissioners merit raises are always preferred because they move current employees up the pay scale and raise the entry-level salaries of new employees.

The Mobile County Commission. (Jason Johnson)

The Mobile County Commission. (Jason Johnson)

After a first look at the budget last week, Commission President Jerry Carl made what are becoming annual comments on increasing the percentage of merit raises included in the county’s budget.

“I would prefer to see it at 5 percent. We’ve got to compete with other agencies like Baldwin County and the city of Mobile,” Carl said. “We may have to move money around, but we’ve got to get our people comfortable. I get tired of people saying, ‘I work here for retirement.’ There’s a long way between here and retirement for a lot of us, so let’s enjoy the days we have here.”

Carl’s remarks were met with some eye rolls during the budget discussions, as some claimed a 5 percent pay raise wouldn’t be “responsible” for the county at this point in time.

However, it was mentioned that increasing the merit pay for employees could be revisited later in the year if the plan were to become more feasible.

Commissioner Connie Hudson said even though the $1,000 bonuses will cost more than an additional 2.5 percent salary increase upfront, they would not be a recurring cost and could be funded using carryover funds from fiscal year 2016.

“There aren’t any good guys and bad guys up here,” she said in response to Carl. “We all want to do the most we can for our employees, but by law, we’re required to have a balanced budget.”

Commissioner Merceria Ludgood took things a step further, saying it’s unfair to compare the salaries of county employees against other municipalities without examining the benefits packages those agencies offer as well.

Ludgood said most Mobile County employees view their employment “as a career, not a job.”

“When you get down in the weeds, you’ll find out that our package is a lot more attractive than either one of those. The county pays the lion’s share of employees’ insurance premiums and absorbs increases in the cost of retirement benefits,” Ludgood said. “I would stand our benefits package up against anybody’s, and if somebody wants to go somewhere and pay more for their health insurance, that’s a decision they’ll have to make.”

Increased revenues, increased costs, “external events”

Newly hired county finance director Dana Foster-Allen presented a proposed budget at Thursday’s working session, where she discussed some of the priority projects and initiatives the county has planned for 2017.

The good news, Foster-Allen said, is revenues are expected to increase 2.79 percent to just over $130 million due to a projected jump in sales and property taxes.

However, the requests from the county’s department heads totaled more than $137 million even with some departments asking for less money than last year.

If all the requests were granted, the county would have been around $6.3 million over budget.

The budget does include funding for increases in some personnel and operational costs, though, including additional personnel for the Mobile Metro Jail, Strickland Youth Center, the animal control department and the 13th Judicial Police at Government Plaza.

Other funds from last year’s carryover had to be designated for the $10 million Emergency Operation Center to cover a gap to which the city of Mobile declined to contribute.

Improvements at the jail related to the county’s ongoing Americans with Disabilities Act transition plan were also specifically mentioned in the budget preview.

In her presentation, Foster-Allen briefly discussed “the financial impact of external events” that weren’t finalized before the budget was submitted and approved this week. Those “events,” she said, likely mean adjustments to the budget might be necessary later in the year.

On Monday, Foster-Allen declined to specify what those “external events” might be, though there have been several playing out in the press recently including the city of Mobile’s plan to cut its external police jurisdiction in half and a continuing lawsuit brought against the commission by the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office’s over funding issues.

Though Alabama’s Supreme Court has already ruled against the county in that case, and if the court’s ruling is applied as written, the county could be on the hook for millions more per year.

For the past two days, attorneys on the both sides have been meeting for private mediation in hopes coming to some type of settlement. As of Wednesday morning, though, no settlement had been reached.