January 17, 2013
The Guilford County
commissioners have so much on their plates right now that if they were at an all you can eat buffet they would get kicked out for piling it on too high.
That was evident at the Board of Commissioners' Thursday, Jan. 10 retreat, when the board began dealing with the current issues the county is facing.
Those include the coming retirement of Guilford County
Manager Brenda Jones Fox and five other county department heads, a projected $41 million shortfall in the next county budget, a potential lawsuit against the Board of Commissioners by Board of Elections Director George Gilbert, growing demands on Emergency Services, a study of equity pay issues for all county employees in the wake of controversial equity-based raises awarded to county directors, the Jan. 1 takeover of the county's park operations and maintenance, and much much more.
After a three-hour morning closed session to look at resumes from applicants for the county manager position, the board came back into open session in the Blue Room on the first floor of the Old Guilford County
Court House and began to address other concerns.
One issue that dominated the political discussion in the county in late 2012, and also is clearly a major topic in 2013, is the fairness of employee pay in county government. Guilford County
Assistant Manager Sharisse Fuller, who's also the county's human resources director, told the board in November that her department had been conducting equity salary studies, which evaluate employee salaries for fairness by comparing them with the pay of others working for the county who have similar experience and education, and who are doing similar jobs. Many employees have gotten raises in the wake of the salary reviews.
Fuller told the board three months ago that studying the pay of all county employees would take a long time. Late last year, the board instructed Fuller to look at the cost of hiring an outside company to speed up the process and, at the retreat, Fuller said Tallahassee-based Evergreen Solutions had, by far, come in as the low bidder.
Fuller told the board that Evergreen had offered a price of $68,000 to evaluate the roughly 1,600 of 2,400 employees who hadn't been evaluated yet. She added that, after further negotiations, Evergreen had agreed to drop that price to $34,000.
Commissioner Jeff Phillips and other commissioners suggested that Evergreen not only evaluate the pay of the county's remaining 1,600 employees, but also the salaries of employees that the county's Human Resources Department had already checked.
"I think a comprehensive approach is best," Phillips said. "Then we can say the same group did it."
Phillips said he understood that analyzing all employee salaries would cost more than the agreed upon $34,000 – perhaps closer to $45,000.Guilford County
Attorney Mark Payne said it was probably a good idea to have all county employees evaluated. He said he didn't expect the study to find much difference from what county human resources employees had already found in the internal study, and he added that if, in fact, there was a "big variance" with the equity pay the county had already calculated, that was something county officials needed to know.
Through a public records request, The Rhinoceros Times has seen some of the salary reviews the county has conducted so far, and they often don't seem to make much sense. For instance, the sheriff was given a raise after his salary was compared to a dentist working for the county. The sheriff oversees hundreds of people and runs a jail, whereas a dentist works in people's mouths.
The big question isn't where the county is going to find $45,000 to do the equity study but, instead, how the county is going to pay for all of those upcoming raises in a 2013-2014 budget with a projected revenue shortfall of $41 million.Guilford County
Manager Brenda Jones Fox, who's retiring at the end of January, gave a short presentation on the county's bleak financial situation.
"So what are some of our budget issues coming up?" Fox asked rhetorically. "Clearly debt repayment is the big one right now."
During her PowerPoint presentation, Fox said Guilford County
's debt service will rise from $92 million this year to $106 million in the 2013-2014 budget. It will then continue to increase in the next two budgets before finally starting to recede.
The shell-shocked commissioners didn't seem to have any great ideas concerning where to find an extra $41 million to balance the next budget.
One big reason for all the debt is the Guilford County
school system, for which county voters approved a $457 million bond referendum five years ago. Guilford County
School Superintendant Mo Green and other school officials came to the retreat and updated the commissioners on school-related matters.
The school officials kept it relatively brief and used their time before the commissioners to talk about how they had been spending the bond money from the $457 million that voters approved in May 2008, in addition to $17 million in 2009 stimulus-related bonds the school is also using for capital projects.
In their presentation, they said that, of that $457 million, the school system had completed projects totaling $271 million, including $52 million for rebuilding Eastern High School, which burned down in 2006. About $37 million was used to build a new Jamestown Middle School. Much of the bond money was spent adding tennis courts, tracks, stadiums and other athletic facilities at county schools.
School officials said that about $102 million of the bond money is in projects currently under construction – such as an autism wing at Ragsdale High School.
About $37 million in bond projects are "under design" and some of the money has yet to be spent.
A few days before the commissioners' retreat, the Guilford County
Board of Education voted not to proceed with building a new airport area high school.
At the retreat, Board of Education Chairman Alan Duncan told the commissioners that the proposed high school, which had originally been on the list of bond projects, was no longer in the works.
"Acquiring land in that area has been exceedingly difficult," Duncan said.
He said the schools were now looking at expanding existing facilities to handle the growing number of students in the airport area.
On a more upbeat note, Green said that an infusion of grant money totaling $35 million will fund a new program that provides all middle school students with tablet computers.
"This is a tablet the student can take home and all course materials will be on it," Green said.
Several commissioners wanted to know if parents would have to pay anything if the tablets were lost, stolen or damaged.
Green told the board that the grant money also covered insurance for the tablets.
"We do build it in as part of the contract, at no expense to the parent," Green said.
He also said that, in pilot programs where the schools have used tablet computers, he had been pleasantly surprised by the small number of problems of that nature....continued on page 2