MANATEE -- In the past two weeks, Ron Schulhofer, Manatee County's Public Works Department director, has watched five employees leave the county for employment elsewhere because of pay.
Charlie Bishop, the county's Property Management Department director, has had the same experience with his department's employees, including those responsible for emptying 154,000 trash cans each year on the beach.
"I can't keep them," Bishop said, noting these employees make $9.85 an hour. "We have a very talented workforce. Sometimes it's sad and sickens me to lose these individuals."
An estimated 79 percent of Manatee County government employee salaries are below grade midpoints, and to eliminate that pay compression, it would cost approximately $2.214 million annually for salary only, according to findings from the consultant, Evergreen.
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"You have compression throughout your pay structure," Jeff Ling of Evergreen told county commissioners Tuesday. "You are paying people at the very bottom of the structure."
With noncompetitive pay programs and pay compression, Manatee County government is competing with surrounding counties and the private sector, which typically pay more for employees.
"We struggle with the pay compression within the workforce because it is difficult for the directors when they are doing hiring," County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said. "We have the challenge. We continue to look at it. We are committed to live within the resources of the current budget we presented to (the commission)."
At Tuesday's commission work session, the Evergreen consultant presented study findings comparing the county pay plan with the market.
In 2008, when Evergreen completed a similar study, the cost to eliminate pay compression was $1.6 million.
Most other organizations with similar pay compression issues don't try to solve the problem in a single year, but over multiple years, Ling said.
The county is tackling the issue in weekly department meetings, Hunzeker said.
"We are looking at it ho
listically across the departments," Hunzeker said. "There are many facets to the problem and not one simple solution."
With 52 percent of county employees over the age of 50, Evergreen said Manatee County should anticipate retirements and turnover to continue.
According to the study, a projected 1,243 of the county's 1,700 employees will leave their jobs by 2020.
"We are working internally to see how we can address these issues in structuring the pay ranges and the pay itself in order to reduce the amount of turnover," Hunzeker said. "We know the cost of turnover is expensive and it's eating away at the budget."
In the proposed 2015-16 $549 million budget, the county will continue its Pay for Performance program, which will help solve pay compression "over the long haul," Hunzeker said.
"We know our pay for performance program will work over time, but time is not necessarily on our side," he said. "As the economy continues to improve, we continue to lose employees to surrounding governments."
While Manatee County has challenges, Hunzeker still said the county is in better shape than most other counties.
"We are blessed with where we are," Hunzeker said. "We have some money to deal with some of these issues. We are challenged. I am here to tell you we have opportunities to solve some of these issues. ... We are on the leading edge of solving compensation issues in the state of Florida."
By Oct. 1, when the new fiscal year begins, Hunzeker said the county is going to "implement certain things to help mitigate the turnover rate."
Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said while she knows Manatee County is in better shape than a lot of other counties, there will also likely be another recession in the future.
"To me, it says that we better get our priorities straight and do something about this when we can," she said. "I think we should have a policy that we are trying to get our employees so we do have competitive pay. ... We are spending a lot of money training new employees over and over again. We need to come up with a good policy for our employees."
Commission Chairwoman Betsy Benac said the study, which is a big-picture look, should be helpful.
"To focus on resolving the problem, we have to focus a little bit more," she said.
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.