Next week, most Charleston County employees will get an extra paycheck for $1,000.
Well, less state and local taxes. And Social Security. And Medicare.
So, probably more like $650.
Charleston County Council approved these checks — some call them cost-of-living adjustments, others say they’re bonuses — back during the budget sessions last summer, and again last week.
It was not, as you might expect, unanimous.
“There are a lot of people out of work, losing their houses, who would love to have a well-paying county job with benefits,” says Councilman Joe Qualey, one of the two “nay” votes. “It just seems like we always find a way to spend money without giving it back to taxpayers.”
Part of the problem, the critics say, is that the county raised taxes a smidgen this past summer — and part of the money went toward making a few dozen part-time employees full-time.
Raising taxes in the summer and handing out extra money in the fall just doesn’t look good, they say.
But actually, these one-time checks are a lot cheaper than giving actual raises.
Charleston County government employees last got a raise in 2011.
Then, council gave them about 2 percent. Which, as most people realize, won’t buy you 1 percent these days.
In last year’s budget, the council approved $1,000 “adjustments” for all employees — save for council members, magistrates, the county attorney and a few others. Those checks were delivered early this year.
Councilman Dickie Schweers voted against last year’s bonus, but supported the one approved last week.
“I have mixed emotions,” Schweers says. “I’ll say this, it’s pretty modest. It’s really not a cost-of-living adjustment.”
That’s because if the county gives cost-of-living raises to employees, they are on the hook for that money as long as the person works for the county. It becomes part of their base pay. But these “adjustments” are not recurring and can be handed out, or not, as council sees fit.
That, Schweers says, makes a big difference.
Councilman Herb Sass, who was the second vote against this, says he opposed the adjustments because of the tax increase, not out of ill feelings toward the employees.
“Certainly the people deserve it,” he says.
And it’s not like all employees are being left behind. Sass says although the county hasn’t given a true cost-of-living raise to employees in a couple of years, folks are still getting “longevity increases.” See, on their 1-, 3-, 5-, 7- and 10-year anniversaries, they get small raises, roughly 3 percent.
If the county is going to spend more on employees, Sass says, it should be to help with the cost of insurance, which is probably going up next year.
Better for whom?
Everybody likes to beat up on government employees.
Maybe that’s because these folks work for the taxpayers.
This won’t help, unfortunately.
Schweers says that county employees shouldn’t be doing better than taxpayers, “but we can’t let their pay become stagnant.”
That’s just fair.
So this is a cheap way for the county to pat its employees on the back with no long-term commitment. See, those checks are going to cost the county a little over $2 million. A 2 percent raise for all county employees would set Charleston taxpayers back $3.1 million.
What needs to happen, Schweers says, is for the county to do a market study to see how local government salaries compare to those in other counties.
That’s a good idea. And it might squelch some of the criticism of these adjustments. Otherwise some people might get irked to see their taxes go up while the folks collecting those taxes rake in bonuses.
And that’s too bad.
Because these bonuses are nice, but they aren’t better than raises for county employees.
But they are better for the rest of us.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org