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County employee pay raise included in budget following a heated debate

By Jonathan Pleasant
As the first County Commission meeting since the newly elected members of the board were sworn in, Thursday night saw sweeping changes in Johnson County’s governing body and numerous items to discuss and debate, sometimes heatedly. The big issue of the night was to finalize and approve this year’s budget, yet with both former chairman and vice-chairman Freddy Phipps and John Brookshire no longer a part of the board, the first order of business was for County Mayor Larry Potter to call for nominations of a new chairman.
Only one nomination was actually heard when Commissioner Bill Adams called for Mike Taylor to take the seat. With no objections and full support Commissioner Huey Long called for the vote, and Taylor relieved Mayor Potter of duty. Next up was nominations for vice-chairman, with Jerry Grindstaff nominating former County Executive George Lowe who chose to withdraw his name for consideration on the grounds that one of the previously seated commissioners would be better suited. With that in mind, Commissioner Huey Long nominated Rick Snyder who ultimately agreed to serve and received full support from the rest of the board. With these two essential positions filled, the board turned to nominations for county attorney. Making a surprise announcement, current attorney Bill Cockett requested not to be nominated due to ongoing health concerns.
The floor was opened to other nominations and there were two names submitted, with Commissioner Jerry Grindstaff nominating Perry Stout and Commissioner Gina Meade nominating Tyler Moffitt. Calling for the vote, Stout ultimately carried the day 13-2 with one commissioner abstaining. With all of these items settled, the commission then resumed the business of the night, including the approval of numerous county official bonds following the results of last month’s election. Likewise, the board also approved a list of committee appointments submitted by Mayor Potter, which largely placed incoming commissioners back in the same seats as their predecessors.
Turning back to the budget, which was first submitted last month, the commission actually recessed for an hour long public hearing to address any concerns about the proposed document. One of the most healthy budgets in recent years, there was only one real point of contention but it became the most heated debate of the evening.
As presented, the budget included a three percent raise for all county employees, something that hasn’t been done in at least four years. At an approximate cost of $78,000 Commissioner Jerry Grindstaff questioned whether it might be a better idea to do a one-time bonus of $500. Grindstaff’s concern was that although this year’s budget has been stronger than in recent years there is no guarantee that next year will be as healthy. Unfortunately, once a raise is applied to the employee’s base salary it cannot be taken back off, whereas a bonus could be withheld next year if things took a turn for the worse.
This is likely one of the main reasons that the county school system also opted to issue a bonus rather than a raise. There were numerous issues raised about amounts, payout dates, overall costs, and other items that could affect the decision, but the whole issue was largely sidetracked when the visibly upset Sheriff Mike Reece spoke up and expressed his opinion that it would be shameful to take away the raise in place of bonus. In fact, Reece was so upset that he went on to state that if the commission did decide to take away the raise that he would then choose to send out the 72 contracted state inmates being housed in the jail, ultimately costing the taxpayers more than $135,000.
With this threat over their heads discussion of the change lost steam and eventually faltered altogether when Commissioner Evelyn Hill expressed her desire to see the budget remain as presented, with the three percent raise intact. Although tempers were obviously elevated, the issue eventually cooled down and the public hearing closed without further problems. Once back in session, the commission moved to approve the document, as well as the proposed budget resolution and tax levy with unanimous support.
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