December 19, 2011 by Jamie Smith
FAYETTEVILLE — It was standing room only during the Dec. 8 Washington County Quorum Court meeting with a large majority of the crowd being county employees interested in if the 2012 budget that included a five-percent raise for all employees would pass.
The $62 million budget did pass, but not unanimously. Three justices of the peace — Rex Bailey, Joe Patterson and Tom Lundstrom — voted against the proposed budget, each citing concerns about the fact that the JPs had to reduce the amount of money placed in reserves for 2012 to balance the budget.
“If we keep doing that, we’ll be out of money,” Patterson said.
Bailey had similar thoughts.
“I’m not against anyone, it’s the principle,” Bailey said. “It will catch up to us.”
Bailey’s reference to not being “against anyone” refers to the raises that were in the budget. How much and the method of giving raises was probably the most contentious aspect of the budget planning process, which began in July.
The budget provides a five percent per hour pay increase, effective for the first paycheck in 2012, for all full-time employees who qualify for annual leave. For those who have been with the county less than a year, the increase will go into effect after their one-year anniversary date.
Patterson said he was not opposed to the idea of a raise, but objected to five percent because of the tough economic times facing the county.
Lundstrom said he would have preferred a 75-cent per hour increase instead of a percent increase. That would have helped the lower-income employees the most, he said.
“For someone making $10 an hour, a 75-cent-an-hour raise would mean a lot but not as much for someone who makes $80,000 a year,” he said. “But if you’re already making $80,000 a year, you can live on that easily in Washington County. It’s a lot harder if you make $10 an hour.”
The Washington County Coroner is the only exception to the five percent raise and that position will receive a 25-percent increase from the previous year’s salary. The Coroner’s salary received a much larger boost in an effort to bring the salary more in line with other coroner salaries for counties of similar size.
Even some of the JPs who voted for the proposed budget said they disagreed with how the raises were formulated. JP Eva Madison did not elaborate during the meeting how she would have rather seen the raises been awarded, but she said that despite disagreeing she would vote for the budget.
“We have too much gridlock in Washington at the federal level,” she said. “I’m not going to contribute to gridlock [at the local level].”
The county faced a gridlock of sorts last year when the Court tried to pass the 2011 budget. A county budget must pass with a two-thirds vote from the entire Quorum Court. If it fails to receive that majority vote, then it must go through three hearings before it can be passed with a simple majority.
Several other JPs spoke in support of the budget, agreeing that it was a compromise.
“There’s no such thing as a perfect budget but this is a pretty good one,” said JP Candy Clark, chairperson of the Finance Committee.
Linda Botbyl has worked for the county in the grounds department for 12 years. She said she appreciated the Court’s decision to give the raises.
“In the past, we would have gotten less,” she said.
Botbyl said many employees heard about the meeting from supervisors who had received an email from County Judge Marilyn Edwards asking them to attend and demonstrate that the issue was of great importance to them. A copy of the email shown to the Washington County Observer indicated that Edwards did not ask employees to support a specific position in regards to the raises.
Although the raises were the hot topic, there were several major components to note in the 2012 budget. Those include a decrease in millage, resulting in a $1.5 million revenue reduction; operation funds and some construction funds for the new Washington County Animal Shelter; new courthouse security measures, increases to the amount of insurance payments per employee ($20 per budgeted position); new construction at the Juvenile Detention Center; and new positions in the information technology department.
In other county news, the JPs approved appropriating $40,000 for the environmental affairs budget to help fund testing of waterways to determine if methods being used to keep phosphorous from the region’s waterways are successful.
The county will become involved in regional efforts to monitor, evaluate and report the effect that proposed changes to stream standards and wastewater discharge requirements might have on Northwest Arkansas.