BALOG COLUMN: Figuring true cost of bonuses for Charleston County workers

It sounded like a good idea at the time. Charleston County administrators must have thought so, anyway, when they proposed $1,000 cost-of-living bonuses for county employees.

However, not everybody agreed.

Maybe that's to be expected. After all, they are the government.

County Council is scheduled tonight to vote on the one-time cost-of-living adjustments.

Pros? Well, if you're a county employee, that's $1,000 that you weren't expecting. It's like getting that “bank error in your favor” card in Monopoly, except you can actually spend this money.

Cons? Well, if you're a county employee, this is a one-time deal. It doesn't mean your wages are going up.

It's certainly nothing to sneeze at, and certainly something that would make a difference in a lot of people's wallets, but it is not a raise.

And that's the heart of the question for some council members, apparently.

What would Berkeley do?

The bonuses would cost Charleston County about $2.5 million.

Berkeley did something similar in December. (Dorchester, well, not so much.) Of course, there was trouble with Berkeley's plan when some elected officials wondered why they were excluded — even Sheriff Wayne Dewitt, who is close to pulling down a 6-figure salary.

Looking at what the other counties do matters to folks like Charleston County Councilman Dickie Schweers.

That's why Schweers, who abstained from the vote at the Finance Committee meeting last week, asked for data from other counties ahead of tonight's vote. Out of 18 counties surveyed, 11 gave a 2 percent COLA, three gave a 3 percent COLA, one gave 3.5 and three more gave one-time COLA payments of 3 percent.

“We should care; it does matter,” he said. “That's where our employees could potentially look for jobs if they wanted to leave Charleston County.”

Also interesting to note is that in 2011, the county was 7.5 percent behind the cost-of-living index. That's because since 2009, its cost-of-living increases have been either equal to or below the Consumer Price Index for the South urban region of the country.

That's a big gap.

Morale booster

Critics who said the money should go back to the taxpayers should note the budget already includes a net decrease in property taxes. Rebating $2.5 million to about 365,000 people translates to less than $7 per person. And that kind of small change doesn't have the same kind of effect on morale as the current proposal.

As Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor noted, many employees are doing more work than before thanks to unfilled positions, so the one-time payment is a nice way to thank them.

Visitors to postandcourier.com were in favor of the payments — 57 percent of people who responded to an online poll Saturday said the employees should get the money.

Would it be better if the county could offer raises to everyone instead of bonuses?

Better for the employees, yes. Better for the county, well, that depends.

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