Though pay raises for employees were a top priority of the Mobile County Commission, exactly how much of an increase became a point of contention between at least two Commissioners as the 2016 budget was passed on Monday.

Commission President Jerry Carl proposed reexamining the budget at the last minute to find an extra $1.2 million needed for a requested 5 percent salary increase, saying it would be “cheaper” than the 2.5 percent increase and additional $1,000 one-time salary adjustment the Commission ultimately approved.
Echoing the wishes of the Mobile County Merit System Employees Association (MCMSEA), Carl said a 5 percent increase was needed to keep the county competitive with other municipalities and to help close the growing gap between the compensation level of county employees and the current cost of living.

In 2014, Mobile County gave its employees their first pay raise since 2007 — a 5 percent increase split in two installments. This year, county Finance Director Michelle Herman said a 2.5 percent raise was the only “fiscally responsible” option.

She said the $1,000 one-time salary adjustment, which will cost the county more in 2016 than an additional 2.5 percent raise would, was only possible because of a one-time transfer of funds that carried over from 2014.

Finance officials review the Mobile County Budget on Sept. 24.

Finance officials review the Mobile County Budget on Sept. 24.

“To take a pot of one-time money and put it toward an ongoing operational expense is really not considered financially prudent or fiscally responsible,” she told Carl during a pre-conference meeting Sept. 24. “Later in the year, there’s nothing to stop the Commission from looking at the actual performance of ongoing revenues and seeing if we’re in a position to do another 2.5 percent raise, but that comes with no promise that it’s going to be there.”

In a last-ditch effort, Carl suggested reallocating the $200,000 the county had originally allotted for BayFest and using excess capital improvement funds to pay the additional salary costs.

However, Commissioner Connie Hudson told Carl those capital improvement funds couldn’t legally be used to pay for raises. She also made it clear Carl wasn’t the only Commissioner concerned about the county’s employees.

“We have all looked,” Hudson said. “You’re no more concerned about giving raises than we are, but we have to be realistic and we have to stay within the confines of law with what we do.”

A letter sent to Mobile County employees detailing  the 2016 changes to their health insurance coverage.

A letter sent to Mobile County employees detailing the 2016 changes to their health insurance coverage.

The 2.5 percent pay raise comes just ahead of a planned spike in county employees’ health insurance costs, which have already been a point of contention since the Commission voted to change to the Local Government Health Insurance Plan in April 2014.

Since then, more than 600 employees have filed a grievance about the current health package with the Mobile County Personnel Board, with little to no relief. Next January, retirees and current employees will pay additional premiums and shoulder increased costs for generic drugs and copays during doctors’ visits.

Despite the increases, the county said it plans to use a budget amendment to absorb the additional costs of the health plan for at least nine months.

According to Herman, that would cost about $160,000 and would only shield employees from the increased premiums through September 2016. The county is already looking at a $620,628 increase for its portion of the employee health insurance costs in January.

Though she said a larger raise for employees was a priority of hers as well, Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said offering a 2.5 percent raise now would ultimately be better than having to come back and cut salaries if they were determined to be unsustainable down the road.

“That’s why we only budget what we see. We don’t budget what we think we may get at some point,” Ludgood said. “But, this has been a priority from the beginning. We don’t do everything else and say, ‘oh let’s see if we can do a raise.’ We lead with, ‘how much can we do for employees.’”

Based on the budget, the county did a good deal for employees, with personnel costs increasing 6.78 percent from 2015 and making up 52 percent of the $129 million budget. The county is also planning for an increase in its revenue, which is expected to be up 3.37 percent from $123 million to $127.

The increase was mostly attributed to increased sales taxes, as Herman said property tax rates had again been “pretty stagnant.”

The week before the budget was finalized, the back and forth between the county and many of its employees took an interesting turn as the MCMSEA invited the majority of Mobile’s legislative delegation to its most recent meeting Sept. 22.  
Though most admitted they have nothing to do with the county’s budget or operations, the seven lawmakers who attended the meeting fielded questions about employee compensation, the makeup of the Commission and the county’s long-debated plan to construct a soccer and aquatic complex at the corridor of interstates 65 and 10 in Mobile.

Many of the questions turned political. Sen. Vivian Figures and Rep. Barbara Drummond blamed their “Republican colleagues” for failing to expand Medicare in Alabama — a move both said would help Mobile County employees are who are struggling to cover their health care costs as well as those throughout the state.

It was also the first time Rep. Margie Wilcox, House District 104, has publicly announced her plans to run for Carl’s seat on the Commission. Carl has also stated he intends to run for reelection in the Republican primary next March.

The issue of the soccer complex was brought up because the the MCMSEA has long suggested the county should not move forward with the project until its employees are better compensated.

However, the majority of Commissioners have stated that a private partner would likely be used to finance some of that project and any borrowed funds couldn’t be used to sustain a pay raise.

Lt. Richard Cayton, president of the MCMSEA and an employee of the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office, told the state lawmakers the Commission has not addressed the employees. “We’ve expressed our frustration to the Commission, but they continue to borrow and spend money the county does not have,” Cayton said. “They need to provide the citizens first and provide basic services. We need to be able to attract and retain quality personnel, and right now the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office is one of the worst in the country as far as compensation for its deputies is concerned.”

Of the three Commissioners, Carl was the only one to attend the meeting, though Ludgood and Hudson both told Lagniappe they were neither informed of nor invited to the meeting.

A public information officer for the county said the group of employees paid to rent the auditorium in Government Plaza, where the meeting was held.

You can read more about that meeting and see comments from the Mobile County legislative delegation here.