Employees of South Carolina's towns and cities saw pay freezes and cutbacks during the Great Recession, like their private-sector counterparts, but municipal budgets have been rebounding and raises have returned.

Pay adjustments

How the Lowcountry's largest municipalities adjusted pay during and after the recession:

CITY 2010 2011 2012

Charleston Temporary cuts No raises 3% raises

North Charleston $1,000 raises No raises Merit raises, 1 to 7%

Mount Pleasant No raises No raises Merit raises, 0 to 3%

In North Charleston, the city's higher-paid employees are taking home an average of 9 percent more pay than they were two years ago.

In Summerville, town workers are getting their first raise since 2011 this year, increasing salaries by up to 5 percent.

While some of the recent municipal raises could make private-sector workers envious, most towns and cities in the Palmetto State have been awarding pay increases of 3 percent or less, as private businesses have been doing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says private businesses in the South raised pay by an average of 2 percent last year, while some private studies put the number at closer to 3 percent.

Many towns and cities in South Carolina - nearly 40 percent according to one survey - gave no raises this year.

In Myrtle Beach, for example, employees received an $800 bonus during the current July-June budget year but will get no salary increase.

"We did not have the revenue growth to allow a larger bonus or, alternatively, either a merit increase or an across-the-board adjustment," said Myrtle Beach spokesman Mark Kruea.

"The only choices to do otherwise would have been an increase in the millage (property tax) rate, on the revenue side, or a cut in services, on the expense side, and neither was palatable."

The vast majority of municipal workers in the state - most of whom are police officers, firefighters and public works employees - earn less than $50,000. Like private sector workers, many are earning less today than before the recession, when inflation is considered.

"The budgets were re-set, so to speak, during the recession," said Scott Slatton of the Municipal Association of South Carolina, which conducted the municipal wage and salary survey. "Outside of higher growth areas like Charleston, Greenville and Rock Hill, budgets have stabilized."

In other words, budgets have stopped falling, but in many towns and cities, they haven't recovered.

Charleston area better

The Charleston metro area has recovered more quickly from the recession, with lower unemployment than most of the state, resurgent real estate development, new employers including Boeing, and some of the fastest population growth on the Atlantic Coast.

For cities including North Charleston, that has translated into growing budgets, fueled by license taxes tied to the revenues of local businesses, taxes tied to hotel and restaurant visits, and property taxes that rise along with new buildings.

North Charleston's tax revenues were $85.6 million in 2010 - the year the recession hit municipal budgets the hardest - but increased to $100 million by 2013. As a result, the city has been able to afford some of the most generous pay increases reported in the Municipal Association survey.

North Charleston employees were eligible for merit raises of up to 7.6 percent last year, on top of merit raises of up to 7 percent in 2012. This budget year, which ends June 30, merit raises of up to 4.6 percent were given.

"We tried to make up, for those (employees) that had been over-achieving," Mayor Keith Summey said.

North Charleston spokesman Ryan Johnson said no employee received the maximum merit raise offered during the past three years.

"In order to get the maximum raise you would have to have had a perfect (evaluation) score, which nobody gets," he said.

An analysis by The Post and Courier found that among North Charleston employees earning $50,000 or more, whose exact pay must be disclosed under state law, average pay increased by 9 percent in two years. That increase reflects raises, salaries that changed due to promotions and greater responsibilities, and salaries that did not change, such as the mayor's $148,905 pay.

Elected officials' pay can only be changed by passing an ordinance that takes effect following an election.

Most modestly paid

As in most towns and cities, the majority of workers in North Charleston - more than 75 percent - earn less than $50,000. Just 13, including the mayor, earn more than $100,000.

In Charleston, 18 of the city's roughly 1,600 employees, plus the mayor, earn more than $100,000.

A review of the salaries of top-paid Charleston officials by The Post and Courier found that they saw their pay rise an average of 10 percent since the start of 2012. According to the city, the change reflects three years' worth of raises ranging from 1 to 3 percent that all employees received, plus additional pay adjustments.

"Over (three years') time, everybody would have gotten a 7 percent increase," said Amy Wharton, the city's assistant chief financial officer. Top-paid officials also got an additional 1.5 percent raise in 2013, she said, to make up for a raise that only lower-paid workers received in 2009.

Charleston's Chief Financial Officer, Steve Bedard, said the salaries of city department heads also are reviewed every two years and can be adjusted by the mayor, to keep them competitive compared with other government salaries.

Across the state, nearly four of every 10 towns and cities didn't raise employee pay this year, or last year, according to the Municipal Association of South Carolina survey. In 2010, 56 percent reported giving no raises.

"It's very important to us that we be as fair as can to the employees," said Eric DeMoura, administrator of the town of Mount Pleasant, which was among that 56 percent. "They are the hands and feet of government, and every year we try for a compensation package that is fair for them, and the taxpayers."

In Mount Pleasant, that has meant raises during good years that may sightly exceed inflation for the better-rated employees, based on evaluations. During the bad years, 2010 and 2011, there were no raises.

"We were just trying to keep the wheels of government moving and provide services," DeMoura said.

For the past three years, the town has offered raises of up to 3 percent.

The Municipal Association survey found that in 2014, roughly a quarter of municipalities surveyed offered possible raises of 4 percent or more, often tied to merit evaluations, while the rest that increased pay offered lesser amounts.

Municipal pay policies can be difficult to track because there are so many ways to categorize pay changes. There can be cost-of-living raises, merit raises, longevity raises, performance bonuses, across-the-board bonuses, one-time pay adjustments, and salary reviews.

The Municipal Association survey attempts to track merit raises and cost-of-living raises only. Some pay adjustments, such as the one-time bonus worth up to 5 percent of pay that Summerville workers received last year, or the one-time $1,000 pay raise North Charleston employees received in 2010, aren't reflected in the data.

Boil it all down, and the bottom line is that town and city workers are beginning to see pay raises again, but like the average private sector employee, their pay hasn't kept pace with inflation.

Social Security checks, which are adjusted each year to account for inflation, have increased by 13 percent since 2008.

For most town and city employees, and many in the private sector, that probably sounds like a good deal.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.