By Mike Donila
(WBIR-Knoxville) Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett has authorized new pay raises for almost half the employees under the executive branch purview, with much of the increases set aside for workers who make $30,000 or less annually.
But, three top ranking officials, including the administration's chief of staff, also will get significant bumps that combine for $29,400 in raises.
The adjustments, which took effect July 1, are in addition to the 2 percent raises for general county employees and those who work in the Sheriff's Office that Burchett and the Knox County Commission publicly discussed and approved during budget talks this past spring.
The commission will still have to sign off on the new adjustments when the administration brings the board a set of proposals on how it wants to use expected surplus money the county will receive in late August. If the board declines, the employees will still get the raises because officials have built into the budget "enough negative allocations," meaning money set aside for positions currently vacant that could cover the costs, said county Finance Director Chris Caldwell.
The raises, including benefits, will cost the county about $1.1 million with the bulk of the costs coming this year and the rest set for next July. Officials say overall increased revenues, like an uptick in tax collections, will cover the additional recurring expense.
"We realized that the ones who really matter - those who make $30,000 and less - we wanted to help them," the mayor said. "What I mean is that when people see Know County, that's who they see. It's those people who are working with chainsaws and cutting down trees, or on the side of the road in the ditches or cleaning up the parks because some hoodlum vandalized the place. We wanted to help those people because they are Knox County government."
The adjustments come in response to a salary survey the county conducted at the beginning of the year that said many county wages didn't stack up to those in 16 comparable local governments across the Southeast, including Knoxville, Chattanooga, Montgomery, AL, and Spartanburg County, SC.
"They wanted to make the lower paid positions whole in relationship to the market, and I think they did a pretty good job," said Lou Rabinowitz, whose Oak Ridge-based consulting firm was paid $9,600 to analyze the salaries. "You usually find some positions that are paid less than the market, some above and some pretty close. That's why you do them in the first place."
The administration initially asked Rabinowitz to survey 73 positions, including senior directors. The increased salary adjustments, though, affect 401 of the executive branch's roughly 900 positions since some of those not analyzed still had similar titles or duties.
On average, the positions received a 5 percent bump in addition to the 2 percent previously approved in the current fiscal year's budget, which took effect July 1.
Of the 400 jobs that received adjustments, almost 55 percent earned $30,000 or less and just over 75 percent made $40,000 or less.
"The goal of the mayor was to help the lower paid employees and I think the survey accomplishes that," said the county's human resources manager, Richard Julian.
Roughly 270 of the jobs are in the public works and engineering and the health departments. Some 33 employees in public works, mostly those who work along the roads or at the convenience centers, make under $25,000 a year.
Employees at the lowest end - those who make $18,840 annually - will get a $4,050 raise.
"Everyone recognizes that there's a lot of agitation these days over salaries for public employees, but these folks, they work hard," said Dwight Van de Vate, director of the county's public works and engineering department. "The work they do is outdoors and it's physical work in all weather conditions, and I think they are very deserving of this extra bit of consideration. I also know that they are grateful for it. They appreciate it."
Some 53 health department workers, whose salaries are $30,000 or less, also will get increases. They mostly include health services clerks, accounting clerks and licensed practical nurses.
However, seven employees who make more than $70,000 annually also will benefit. And three of them- Chief of Staff Dean Rice, Finance Director Caldwell, and Purchasing Director Hugh Holt - earn more than $100,000.
That, however, doesn't mean they don't deserve the increases, the mayor said.
"It was done by an independent third party - the survey was - and it said they were underpaid," said Burchett. "I think it's a big deal, though, that we're able to give the raises we did, not increase taxes and still deliver the services as we do."
Holt received a $10,300 increase, bringing his annual salary to $123,350. The bump included the 2 percent that all employees received. Officials noted that Holt's duties go beyond those of most purchasing directors whose jobs were analyzed. He also manages county property, oversees its purchasing card program and manages some construction projects.
Caldwell, who took over as finance director about a year ago, was serving under a probation period. He received a $13,200 increase bringing his salary to $134,100. His predecessor John Troyer made $147,700 annually.
The administration also noted that Rice, whose $5,900 raise brings his annual salary to $155,300, oversees the same duties of his predecessor Mike Arms, who made $147,800 when he left in late 2010, and Dwight Van de Vate, who made $138,160 before Burchett moved him to over the public works and engineering department.
Officials added that the county also is looking into conducting another survey in October, this one tied to the Sheriff's Office. Any changes, though, probably wouldn't go into effect until July 2015.
"We know our men and women deserve salary increases and we eagerly await the survey results to show at what level," said Knox County Sheriff Jimmy "J.J." Jones.
The County Commission will discuss the new raises more than likely in late August. Commissioners at this point said they didn't know much about them, but they were aware of the salary survey, since the board approved it last year at Commissioner Amy Broyles' request.
"I'm glad they're addressing so many of our lowest paid workers, but it's not enough to just get them over $20,000 a year," said Broyles. "It's great, but we've still got employees with families who are going to qualify for food stamps and they shouldn't have to."
Broyles, though, said she was upset that Rice, the administration's chief of staff and already one of the county's highest paid employees, received an increase.
"Chris (Caldwell) got a big promotion and I can see that. And if Hugh Holt was underpaid then that's fine, but I don't have any rationalization for Dean getting that salary," said Broyles, who has often clashed with Rice.
Commission Chairman Tony Norman said he hasn't yet analyzed the adjustments, but said he was aware of the increases.
"We'd like for 100 percent of (the increases) to go to the workers below the $40,000 range, and that would probably be the sentiment for a lot of people I would expect, but we'll have to talk about it," he said.