Charleston County Council is poised to give most of its employees checks for $1,000 each next week in a one-time cost-of-living adjustment meant to offset the current tough economy.

The announcement of the payout came during this week’s Finance Committee meeting and carries a price tag of about $2.5 million.

One council member who voted against the idea questioned the timing of the boost and why the county instead wasn’t seeking to return the money in some form to local taxpayers.

“There are vast numbers of people in Charleston County struggling to avoid bankruptcy and to save their homes,” Councilman Joe Qualey said Friday.

“And I don’t think it sends a good message that we’re giving employees money when we can be finding ways to help the taxpayers.”

Qualey also questioned the speed of the debate that led to the payout going forward Thursday.

“It happened in a hurry,” he said.

If approved at Tuesday’s regularly scheduled council session, checks to county workers could go out as soon as Friday. The money would be subject to state and federal taxes.

County Administrator Kurt Taylor said the one-time cost-of-living adjustment came as part of the county’s mid-year budget review and after no across-the-board COLAs were given to staff this year. About 2,500 people would benefit, though an exact count has not been set.

Taylor said the money is not a choice of putting employees over taxpayers but that the one-time checks are part of ensuring high employee morale when prices are going up everywhere, including for food, gas and housing.

“My philosophy is to try to increase the morale of our workforce and have it be a place where people are recognized for sticking with us,” he said.

While the county has given COLAs before, this would be the first time the county has given them out as single checks. Members of County Council would not be eligible for the payments. Joining Qualey in opposition this week was council member Herb Sass, officials said.

One of those in the majority supporting the payment was Council Chairman Teddie Pryor, who said the money represented a reward for employees at a time when some have picked up the duties of two or three jobs that have gone unfilled.

Opponents were politically posturing on the issue, Pryor said, and he didn’t advocate returning to taxpayers what would be a nominal check, possibly as low as $3 or $4.

Taylor also said the rest of county government’s needs and budgets are not suffering as a result of the payout. For instance, the county has no current need for new vehicles or patrol cars this year, he said.

There is local precedent for such payments being made. Berkeley County government in December gave its workers a one-time check representing three percent of salary. Dorchester County gave no staffwide COLAs this year, an official there said Friday.

Bo Petersen contributed to this report. Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.