Oddo, Barlow, Rousseau vote for 2% pay raises for county employees

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It came four months later than some had planned, but Fayette County government employees will have a little more in their paychecks starting next month.

The Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 at its Oct. 22 regular meeting to approve a 2-percent cost-of-living adjustment effective Nov. 1 for eligible county employees. The move will cost about $460,000 for the 2016 fiscal year.

This was in the budget recommended by county staff in the summer, but it failed as the commissioners deadlocked 2-2 on the issue in June with Charles Oddo and David Barlow in favor of it but Steve Brown and Randy Ognio opposed.

The day of that vote, June 5, was the day former commissioner Pota Coston entered the hospital and would not return, as Barlow noted in last week’s meeting.

“She would have voted for this,” Barlow said of Coston, who died July 3.

As many expected, her successor Charles Rousseau was also in favor of the measure and cast the deciding vote this time around.

Brown and Ognio continued to express their concerns about the possible effects down the road. Citing media reports of recent Social Security benefit freezes and saying that many state and local jurisdictions are not prepared to pay pensions for retiring employees, Brown stressed that the county must be prepared for future expenses.

“If my colleagues are going to do this, they should raise revenue enough to cover it and not leave us holding the bag for recurring costs,” he said. “We chided our predecessors for doing some things that were not fiscally responsible. Let’s make sure we don’t return to those mistakes.”

Ognio restated his position that COLAs are essentially a thing of the past in the private sector, which puts more stock in merit-based rather than across-the-board raises.

“You have to look at future years when doing this,” he said. “You are putting a bigger burden on the citizen one way or another and eventually it will not be sustainable.”

While there was not a full-blown budget presentation at this meeting, county manager Steve Rapson addressed some nuts-and-bolts financial details at Rousseau’s request. Rapson pointed out again that this was the only government in the county without a tax increase this year, giving a full millage rollback. As a result, the budget captured an additional $700,000 instead of $2.1 million that would have been reaped with no change in the millage.

Reminding the board and the public that the county has a balanced budget, Rapson said that with this amendment the county is still adding about $550,000 to its fund balance this year.

“We are not taking from any other line items,” he said. “Everything else is still intact.”

When Rapson mentioned that the Fayette’s is the only county retirement fund in the state that is overfunded, Barlow emphasized that point by asking Rapson loudly, “Would you say that again, please?”

Rapson said he agrees with Brown and Ognio in principle and he is always looking not just at this year’s and next year’s budget but also “years 3 and 4.”

He also praised his staff, saying, “We don’t brag on them enough. Things are radically different from what they used to be. I have 26 department heads who are on the top of their game.”

Barlow echoed those thoughts, saying that the employees he visited in early 2013 right after taking office were in a bit of a malaise because of what they considered an uncertain future with three new commissioners and a new county manager.

Thirty-two people took early retirement at that time and those positions were not filled, Barlow said, “but the remaining county employees kept working hard anyway. Now we have a chance to right this. With enthusiasm I will support this increase for our fine employees.”

Rousseau agreed with Brown and Ognio regarding the board’s fiduciary responsibility but said there was an equal responsibility “to take care of those who take care of our citizens.” He said Ognio’s comparison between county and government and private industry “is apples to oranges in many respects” and that the county must look at attracting future talent as well as retaining the talent already in place.

Oddo closed the discussion by saying that he is not automatically in favor of COLAs “but in this case it is justified.”