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By LOU ELLIOTT JONES
A last-minute suggestion and plea for a pay raise for Levy County employees — the first in two years — died on the vine in Monday afternoon's budget workshop.
Commissioner Danny Stevens made the suggestion to his fellow commissioners to spark discussion on a topic that has hung heavy over budget talks this year: Would county workers go without a pay increase for a third year in a row?
“It was supposed to have been talked about,” Stevens said on Tuesday. “This wasn't last-minute. It was brought up before. Freddie brought it up and Nancy said she wanted to digest it a little.”
Freddie is County Coordinator Fred Moody, the county's top executive. He has mentioned in the past that the lack of pay raises is a sore subject among county workers.
Nancy is Commission Chair Nancy Bell who has pushed for every department — including the sheriff's office — to cut its budget by 5 percent in the coming budget year even if it means layoffs.
She continued that drive Monday, going along with Commissioner Marsha Drew's suggestion that County Supervisor of Elections Connie Asbell, a constitutional officer, be asked to cut her budget proposal by 5 percent.
“Before anything is final, there needs to be a discussion on this,” Stevens said. “I would like to see our employees get a pay raise this year.” Stevens went on to suggest 3 percent and said it could be tied to an anniversary date or birthday, or any way the commission chose.
“I think the board as a whole last year was thinking things would be better this year,” Stevens said. He was referring to discussion on this year's budget during summer 2008 when the sliding economy meant increases in employees' health insurance would be covered by the county, but there would be no raises. At that time, the board indicated the question of raises would come up in this year's budget talks.
New Commissioner Chad “Cracker” Johnson said he felt the discussion of pay raises was coming late in the talks, and especially after the discussions on taxes and assessments that had just occurred.
Bell told the commission that the number of county property owners who did not pay taxes in the current budget year was high. She also said business owners were saying they could not pay new emergency medical service assessments of 6 cents per foot, raising them above last year's $75 per business, no matter the size.
“There are people out there not paying personal taxes,” Bell, an accountant by profession, said several times during the workshop. “I hate to layoff people and not give raises.”
“I would love to give a raise, but I just don't see it,” said Drew. “People these days are pretty happy just to have a job.”
“We don't know what that would do to the budget,” Moody said.
County financial officer Sheila Rees said, “You can just figure up three percent for each fund.”
The proposed 2009-2010 county budget is over $60 million.
County Clerk Danny Shipp who has state-paid workers and county-paid workers on his staff said it has caused some concern in his office when the state folks got pay raises and the county folks did not. And he predicted that if there are any jobs on the outside, “You are going to lose the best ones.”
Capt. Evan Sullivan of the Sheriff's Office, who has said a cut in the office's budget will force the layoff of “at least three people” said a veteran deputy with five years experience, is leaving for a $9,000 annual pay increase in Alachua County.
“That's what I want to avoid,” Stevens said. “I want to keep our employees and we need to keep morale as high as possible.”
Commissioner Lilly Rooks, who was silent for most of the discussion, said, “Let me see if I have this right. We need to leave the millage at the same rate, 7.412 percent, we need to leave the assessments at $75, we need to give three percent for employees, we just told the supervisor of elections to cut her budget by five percent and if we take the assessments completely off the table we have to go back to the budget to find $2 million to fund EMS.”
Johnson said Levy has over 12 percent unemployment at this time. “I'm hard pressed to squeeze the numbers out of this,” he said tapping the budget document. “There's nothing better for morale than money.”
But Johnson said he felt it was too late in the discussion to be bringing up pay raises.
Earlier in the discussion, the commissioners talked about backing off the EMS assessment for businesses. The commission has charged a flat fee of $75 per home and business, but in the coming year will be going to a flat fee of $76 for residences and assessments of 6 cents per square foot for commercial/retail space; 15 cents per square foot for institutions and 1 cent per square foot for industrial/warehouse space.
County Property Appraiser Oz Barker said he was finding that the data he provided to the consultant who mailed the assessment notices was not consistent.
Also Fred Moody brought up the case of Williston Peanuts Inc. which has a number of buildings but only 1,800 square feet is commercial/retail space. The remaining space is warehouses, pole barns and other buildings which should only be taxed at the 1-cent rate.
Barker and Moody said a telephone call or a visit can clear up some problems with the classifications, but it does need to be verified.