County commissioners last week took their first, long look at what awaits them with the upcoming budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year and while they didn’t hammer out specifics, they did appear to agree on one thing.

County employees are deserving of a pay raise next year, and they would likely back some sort of increase.

At the conclusion of a morning-long budget prehearing April 22, called by Chairman Cheryl Sanders to get an idea of what big-ticket capital expenditures may await them, the commissioners turned to the subject of employee raises.

“I think they need one,” said Sanders, noting employees have not had raises or adjustments since 2006. “Do we want to give an adjustment or an outright raise? I do realize we’re going to have to do something for our employees this year.”

She suggested the county consider a plan to grant recurring cost-of-living adjustments (COLA), of perhaps 2 or 3 percent, each year to employees.

“We got to get them up to a level where they can sustain their families. Some are working two or three jobs to keep their families going,” Sanders said. “I would like to consider a COLA that would automatically be plugged into the budget every year and it wouldn’t be a haggle and an upsetting time during the budget process. That’s what we really get hit on, what we give the county employees.”

Commissioner Noah Lockley backed Sanders’ plan, stressing that he believed regular pay increases would stabilize the workforce. “The people need a raise,” he said. “If they’d have had one, we wouldn’t have had all this chaos that we had. If we gave a raise every year and people increasing their salary, some of those people wouldn’t put in for those jobs. They wouldn’t want the headache.”

Commissioner William Massey also backed the idea of putting in a raise this year, and then some sort of annual COLA.

“There’s been no raise in seven years in the city of Carrabelle,” said Massey, who works for that city and said he also moonlights with three other jobs to make ends meet.

“I’d like to give them (county employees) a couple thousand dollars and then next year plug in a COLA,” he said.

Commissioners Pinki Jackel and Smokey Parrish both voiced caution before committing their solid support for a proposal.

Jackel said she’d prefer first to have a better idea of what next year’s revenue projections look like. “I'd hate for numbers to get there out in the public and not know about our abilities (to fund them),” she said.

Jackel also noted she saw a disparity between the compensation packages of the 60 or so employees who work directly for the county commissioners, such as for the road department or parks and recreation, and the other 140 or so who work for one of the constitutional officers.

“If we continue to increase them all, the disparity between the two groups will always remain the same,” she said.

At the request of Clerk of Courts Marcia Johnson, the commissioners approved a motion unanimously to have the finance department draw up estimates of the cost of implementing a $1,200, $1,800 or a $2,000 raise, as well as a 2 and 3 percent COLA in subsequent years.

Alan Pierce, the county’s director of administrative services, provided a quick, ballpark estimate of the cost of increasing the pay of approximately 200 county employees. “That would be $300,000 to a half-million dollars before you got done,” he said.

“We’re going to have to cut to make room for these,” said Parrish.

Sanders opened the hearing, which was held in the main courtroom, by outlining its purpose.

“Basically this is to find out what you all departments need, over and beyond what your regular budget calls for,” she said. “Let’s get a head start on it. Give us a broad range of what it is.

“I don’t want the departments feeling pressured during budget cycles,” Sanders said. “I don’t want anything to come up that we do not know about during the final budget hearing. I’d like to know beforehand and hopefully have a smoother budget process.”

Sheriff Mike Mock opened the hearing, indicating the only areas where he saw possible large-ticket items could be with vehicles or improvements to the jail, a matter, he said “of getting the building back to where it needs to be.”

Mock said problems with water and sewer had tripled the facility’s water bill a few weeks ago, and that estimates are that it will take about $60,000 in plumbing costs to fix the aging fixtures.

Pierce said the Eastpoint Water and Sewer District has asked the county to fund about $37,000 in costs for fixing and maintaining the sewage pit the district owns but which is used entirely for the jail.

“The only other major expense is the roof, and we hope to come through it with FEMA money,” said Pierce, noting the roofing contractor who last worked on it is now out of business and so there is no coverage under warranty.

Mock said he expects that retirements in the next several years may prompt some cost savings with personnel.

“There may be some I don’t have to replace and we can double up, but I can't do that without jeopardizing (public safety),” he said. “Law enforcement is the last area I’d be cutting at.”

Johnson said she did not foresee a budget increase for the clerk of courts office, but noted that if the county doubles the bed tax, from 2 to 4 percent, or the county receives a big infusion of funds from the RESTORE Act, “please keep in mind I’m going to have to have someone else in my office to help with that. Probably fulltime during that period, when the money is in place.”

Tax Collector Jimmy Harris said his office, and that of Property Appraiser Rhoda Skipper, will have to split the $8,400 annual cost of offsite backup for their computer software, but that otherwise he did not foresee any large expenses.

Rita Preston, representing Skipper, said very preliminary estimates are that the county’s tax base could drop between 3 and 5 percent next year. “Rhonda is very frugal and she will do what she can to get (her) budget at the lowest possible,” she said.

Jackel said she foresaw the tax base reaching a low point next year and then gradually starting to improve.

“Hopefully we will bottom out next year, and it will be two to three years before we see an increase,” she said.

While several departments stepped forward to say that did not expect large increases in their capital needs, Fonda Davis, who directs solid waste, and Hubert Chipman, who is soon to retire as the head of the road department, each outlined some specific vehicle needs. Davis said he planned to look at the details of possible lease arrangements when it comes to paying the large-ticket costs of funding a trackloader and compactor. Chipman said his department is looking at a new truck for transporting inmates, and a grass-cutting tractor.

William Scott, the veterans service officer, asked that the county consider an increase in compensation for his assistant, whose salary has remained constant since 2008. “He’s a 29-hour employee, and he never works less than 30-35 hours a week,” Scott said.