Wilson County commissioners must weigh the benefits of increasing pay for county employees at the expense of a significant property tax increase in the upcoming budget.
During a work session this week called by District 23 Commissioner Sue Vanatta, who said she hoped the discussion would "open our eyes, open our ears... to have a clear understanding" of what is being proposed with the 2016-17 budget.
Commissioners will have to pass a budget during next Monday night's meeting or be in violation of state law requiring budget submissions by Aug. 31.
Their most difficult task will be to decide how to approve a proposed 40-plus-cent property tax increase to fund higher pay for county employees, teachers, improved emergency services, additional school facilities and more.
Finance Director Aaron Maynard "emceed" the meeting and compiled a near-40-page presentation - a Cliff's Notes version - of the proposed budget.
$5.5 million for employee raises
During a recent study, the county sought to determine minimum, mid and maximum pay for nearly every position, based on pay in neighboring Williamson, Sumner, Montgomery and Rutherford counties.
In all, the total cost would be $5,589,765 to move most employees to the "mid" pay level of the surrounding counties, based on the Budget Committee's suggestion - and funding it would require a 15-cent property tax hike.
Wilson County does not currently offer salary ranges for most of its positions, which Steve Thompson of Burris Thompson and Associates - the agency which conducted the third-party pay study - said can make it difficult to determine starting pay, justify raises and supervisor salaries.
"Currently, 350 of the 500-plus county employees are below the minimums" suggested by the study, District 8 Commissioner Frank Bush said. He added that he is in favor of raising salaries, but "do it over a reasonable period of time."
By raising everyone to "mid" range, Bush said, "134 employees will get over a $10,000 raise. Fifteen will get over a $15,000 raise."
'Most underpaid at the top'
Maynard said that commissioners could decide to increase pay to the minimum instead of the mid through amendments during Monday night's meeting. Raising county employees to the minimum would cost $1.9 million, he said.
"But it's important to have minimums to establish a base for county of this size. Going to the minimum would cost 5 to 6 cents," instead of 15 cents, and $5.5 million, as proposed.
He even suggested alternatives, such as minimum plus 2.5 percent - which would cost about 7 cents in property tax; and minimum plus 5 percent - which would cost about 9 cents.
"But where we are most underpaid is at the top," Maynard said. "To have WEMA Director Joey Cooper at $55,000 is nothing short of ridiculous. He has 130 employees under and reporting to him."
Although more than half the county's employees make less than the proposed minimums, Maynard stated, " It's not ethical, in my opinion, to ignore people at the top."
Thompson agreed: "You've got some real problems, not just at the top, but for several layers below that.
"You've got accountants making $40,000, while the deputy sheriff makes $40-something. A police officer in Metro (Nashville) makes $40,000."
Revised teacher pay would cost 8 cents
The proposed budget also adds back into the county teachers' pay plan advanced degrees, as well as step raises for teachers with between one and 10 years' experience.
Three years ago, Wilson County Schools increased the pay for first-year teachers to $40,000 to compete with surrounding counties, but according to the current pay plan, those teachers do not get a raise until they have gained more than 10 years' experience.
The proposed budget stated that advanced degrees (masters or doctorate) would earn an extra $3,000; teachers with 1-5 years' experience would earn an extra $1,000; 6-9 years' experience $2,000 and 10-plus years of experience would earn an extra $3,000.
New middle school cost: 15 cents
Maynard said the county's population has grown 44 percent since 2000, and its student population has grown more than 45 percent in the same time.
"No one is sicker of building school buildings than me," he confessed. "But we only have 10 portables in the system. However, we have two of the largest middle schools in the state."
District 22 Commissioner Wendell Marlowe said the county cannot ignore the growth and has to look at where it is focused, which is in the northeast portion of the county.
"I'm one of those schools," said Marlowe, who also serves as the principal at West Wilson Middle School.
Wilson County Director of Schools Dr. Donna Wright said the current student enrollment in county schools is 17,961, an increase of 600 since the end of the past school year.
With all at stake in the upcoming budget, Monday night is sure to bring a lot of emotion.
A public hearing will be held Monday, Aug. 29 from 6-7 p.m. in the Wilson County Courthouse, and the commission meeting will begin at 7 p.m.
Tax increases, as proposed:
Employee pay plan - 15 cents
Wilson county convenience centers - 1 cent
WEMA - 2.7 cents
Wilson County Schools teacher raises - 8.1 cents
Fund balance - 2.7 cents
Gladeville middle school - 15 cents