After taking “a conservative approach” for many years since the 2008 recession, the Mobile County Commission has approved a $141 million budget expected to fund some long-sought capital upgrades and extend pay raises to all county employees.

Passed by a unanimous vote this week, the budget includes a 2.5 percent raise for all employees, a $500 “salary supplement” and an additional 7.5 percent salary increase for court police who provide security in Government Plaza and other county buildings.

Finance Director Dana Foster-Allen is projecting a $4.5 million increase in revenues in the next fiscal year, including an estimated $3.4 million uptick in taxes the county expects to collect. While there have been steady increases in sales tax receipts since 2012, Foster-Allen also credited the county’s “conservative budgeting practices” for its current financial outlook.

Even with revenues trending upward and a likely surplus, Foster-Allen said there would be controls in place to ensure the county does not operate at a deficit in 2018.

“All of these revenues will be monitored and measured against projections, and with the county’s budget being heavily dependent on sales taxes, those will be strictly measured,” she said. “That’s key for all counties, as sales taxes are our main economic generator.”

Because of the projected surplus, which includes $6 million of carryover funding from 2017, the budget for 2018 includes $5.1 million in capital improvements — a 35 percent increase from 2017. The county also maintains roughly the same level of debt service, which Foster-Allen credited for recent improvements to the county’s bond rating.

“One of our investors asked the county what we were going to do [with that surplus], and we presented them with these one-time capital purchases,” she added. “That was favorable, and subsequently the county received an increase in its bond rating.”

Among other things, those one-time expenditures include $265,000 for information technology upgrades, $720,000 for new vehicles at the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office and $600,000 for software upgrades that will streamline electronic land records maintained by the Mobile County Probate Court.

Another $150,000 is earmarked to reimburse Goodwill for losses it has incurred operating the county’s recycling center based on an agreement two commissioners struck with the nonprofit earlier this year.

Foster-Allen said “just about every county department received capital monies” in addition to their annual budget allocations, something Commissioner Jerry Carl said was important when the commission considered how surplus monies from previous years should be allocated.

“The first thing we all agreed on was pay raises, and then we started looking at capital improvement projects,” Carl said. “We went to each department and asked, ‘If you had some extra money, how would you use it?’ Everyone had some input into this budget, which has worked out much, much nicer than in previous years.”

Pay raises
Over the past three years, a regular topic of discussion during budget deliberations has been pay raises for county employees, who went several years without any adjustment until 2014, when the commission began bumping salaries up around 5 percent annually.

While the proposed budget only includes a 2.5 percent increase, it also provides funding for a $500 salary supplement that employees will see in early November.

For public safety employees, that 2.5 percent raise will be added to the 7.5 percent bump in salary MCSO personnel received in February after Sheriff Sam Cochran told commissioners low wages were causing the department to lose officers and recruits. A full year of statistics has yet to be collected, but Cochran thinks the raises have helped.

“We’re competing against other agencies that have given raises, and against the private sector because Wal-Mart, Amazon … some of those jobs pay more than the starting salaries for our deputies,” Cochran said. “When someone compares our starting salary to other agencies, it’s beginning to give us a bit of an edge or at least putting us on an equal level with some others.”

The commission also agreed to separate a cost-of-living adjustment for MCSO personnel from the merit increase other county employees will receive. Everyone will see the same bump in pay, but a merit increase moves employees up their pay scale, while a COLA raises the starting salary for new hires at MCSO.

Commission President Merceria Ludgood said the distinction was important for many county employees who didn’t receive a pay increase with MCSO earlier this year.

“Everybody knows I voted against the 7.5 [percent increase] because we have so many employees who are underpaid and make far less than some in the sheriff’s department,” Ludgood said. “I want to do right by everybody, but, at a minimum, I want them be able to see themselves walking up the steps in their pay range and classification.”

Grand Bay library
When an untenable lease brought the future of the Semmes branch of the Mobile Public Library into question this spring, it also highlighted a disparity in the funding for other county libraries. Commissioners have since purchased the Semmes library for $1.3 million, but that situation may have provided Carl the leverage to secure funding for a library renovation in his own district next year.

“I can’t lie and say didn’t use that,” Carl said when asked if the situation in Semmes played a role in the $600,000 allocated in the 2018 budget for renovations at the Grand Bay Library.

“For at least five years [Grand Bay] has been trying to raise money to do those improvements, but at the rate they were going, it would have taken another 10 years, if not more,” Carl added. “Bayou La Batre has a very small library, and that’s it in the southern part of the county. Now we’ll have one in Grand Bay; it will be properly managed, staffed and hopefully look really nice.”

With renovations set aside in the budget, Carl hopes the Grand Bay Library can model itself as a “regional” library like the Semmes branch has. Additionally, the 2018 budget also allocates around $86,000 to increase the “per capita” expenditures at libraries throughout Mobile County.