At the beginning of the July 2014-June 2015 fiscal year (FY '15), the Rabun County Board of Commissioners approved a 5 percent raise for county employees — only the second pay bump for county workers since 2008, the other being 1.5 percent in FY '14.
But with classification and pay plans created with assistance from the Carl Vinson Institute of Government in the process of being reevaluated, County Administrator Jim Bleckley said further changes to employee salaries could be seen in the near future.
Debra Jacobs, county clerk and chief financial officer, said the county was in the process of working with the institute on new classification and pay plans. She said these would determine whether employees are on track to earn a competitive wage with their counterparts in counties of similar size and economic health as well as workers performing similar jobs in the private sector.
“In 2005, the University of Georgia did a classification and compensation plan for the county and in that classification they did job descriptions,” Jacobs said. “They assigned a pay grade to every position.”
According to information gathered from a Freedom of Information Act records request, Bleckley is the highest paid county employee and earns $105,618.61 per year. Ray Coulombe, executive director of the Rabun County Development Authority, receives the second largest salary, bringing in $97,500, with Jacobs' salary the third largest at $84,571 per year. Bleckley has served as county administrator for almost 24 years while Coulombe has been employed by the county for almost three years. Jacobs has been with the county for almost 20 years.
The most recent Classification and Compensation Plan for Rabun County was adopted Dec. 20, 2005. The objectives of the study were to review and upgrade the classification system and pay plan for county employees as well as to collect wage survey data and create a pay plan based on job analysis, job evaluation and the collected data.
The report stated that the system used to evaluate jobs in the classification plan took in 10 factors, which include: knowledge required by the position, supervisory controls, guidelines, complexity, scope and effect, personal contacts, purpose of contacts, physical demands, work environment and supervisory responsibility.
The current pay scale is divided into 25 grades and 18-lettered steps, Jacobs said. Grade is indicative of an employee’s position based on job description while a step represents the level of advancement within the position.
“For example, the director of EMS is a grade 21 job. Then we have steps that go all the way out to R,” Jacobs said.
“They would start at grade 21 step A,” she added.
Since 2005, the pay plan has been updated a number of times to reflect an increase in the cost of living, while employees have had limited instances where merit-based raises were approved. The 5 percent raise issued to workers in July was comprised of a 2 percent cost of living raise and a 3 percent merit-based raise.
“Ever since I first started, they were given small- to medium-sized cost of living raises every year,” Bleckley said. “Then about 2006 or 2007 ... when the economy went bad, that’s when they stopped and they didn’t do it for four or five years.”
Across the region, different counties implement pay plans of similar organizational structure, some of which also utilize the grade and step system recommended by the Carl Vinson Institute.
Habersham County also utilizes the grade and step systems to determine employee pay said Lynn Merritt, director of human resources for Habersham County.
Information provided by Crystal Ward, Habersham County clerk to the commission, listed Habersham’s county administrator as having the highest yearly salary at $96,054.40, the economic development director having the second highest salary at $70,012.80 per year and the director of human resources having the third highest at $60,008.
Two people fulfill Jacobs’ dual roles in Habersham, which combined cost taxpayers $97,156.80 per year.
In comparison, information provided by Shanda Murphy, county clerk and director of human resources for the White County Board of Commissioners, showed that the county administrator earned $91,000 per year, including auto allowances and $5,000 in lieu of insurance benefits. The second highest earner is the information technology director at$77,632.36. The third highest earner is the county’s director of community and economic development, who earns $75,738.78.
But county employees aren’t the only professionals working in Rabun County whose salaries are paid by taxpayers. Salaries for Rabun County Schools employees are funded by state, local and federal tax dollars.
Lois Burrell, finance director for the school system, said the three top earners were Superintendent Melissa Williams, Mark Earnest, former high school principal and now federal grants director, and current RCHS Principal Joi Woods. Williams was hired at a $150,000 yearly salary, but will receive $118,125 for FY '15 because she started two months into the year. Earnest earns $115,950 and Woods earns $110,798.
Burrell said all three school employees are longtime educators. She added the school system was similar in pay structure to those of similar size and economic situation.
Jacobs said the Carl Vinson Institute recommended the county's compensation plan be updated once every five years to ensure employees were being paid competitively, but previous commissions were not interested in funding a study. Jacobs added in an email that the current survey, which is predicted to be complete by Dec. 15, cost the county $15,000.
Should the new pay plan suggest Rabun County employees receive a salary increase, Jacobs said the ultimate decision to issue that raise would fall on commissioners’ shoulders.
Bleckley said in the past, commissioners have chosen to set a pay scale lower than recommended by the institute.
“What I remember was (the pay plan desired by commissioners) was below and the head of that department (at the institute). ... came before the commissioners at a public meeting ... and went over it,” Bleckley said. “He made recommendations that they improve it more than the commissioners actually did.”
Should commissioners decide to increase the base pay county employees receive after reviewing the findings of the new study, Bleckley said the county’s overall budget would increase unless cuts were made in other areas.
The Tribune could not reach representatives of the institute knowledgeable about the county’s pay plan by press time.