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Manatee County employee pay lags behind other counties

One in an occasional series

MANATEE -- As the economy continues to rebound after the Great Recession, Manatee County government must compete with surrounding counties and the private sector for employees.

Manatee County's average weekly salary of $880 for approximately 1,700 employees lags neighboring county pay levels. The average annual salary for a Manatee County worker is $45,760.

Its closest rivals are all higher:

Hillsborough County is at $1,051 per week for an annual wage of $54,652.

Sarasota County pays an average weekly salary of $1,030 for an annual wage of $53,560.

Pinellas County pays $936 per week for an annual wage of $48,672.

"Our pay needs to not fall too far behind the marketplace," Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said. "We are losing employees in certain areas to surrounding counties and we need to look at those categories and see what's going on. In addition to that, we are looking at those positions in the county government where we are having high turnover and what's causing that to see if there is something we need to do in compensation. Some of the lowest-paying jobs are getting the highest turnover."

Employees salaries make up 40.2 percent or $213 million of Manatee County's $530 million budget. Of that, $112.6 million or 21.2 percent is compensation for employees under the Board of County Commissioners.

County department director annual salaries range from $103,043 to $149,614 and Hunzeker makes $206,086 a year, according to human resources data reported as of Dec. 31, 2014.

County commissioners are paid $78,789, which is set by the state.

Manatee County Sheriff's Office employees are paid almost $90 million total.

Hunzeker is proposing the Pay for Performance program implemented in fiscal year 2014 to continue in the 2015-16 budget. A total equal to 4 percent of budgeted salaries will be held in reserves to fund increases. Constitutional officers will receive the same funding for compensation increases based on the 4 percent but can elect how to distribute it among employees.

In Hunzeker's proposed $549 million budget for 2015-16, employee salaries comprise 39.7 percent or $218 million. Of that, 20.6 percent or $113 million, funds county employees under the Board of County Commissioners while 17.1 percent funds Manatee County Sheriff's Office salaries.

The consultant Evergreen is conducting a study comparing Manatee County pay with the market. Evergreen completed a similar study for Manatee County in 2008.

"You really do need to look at your compensation plan on a regular basis," Hunzeker said. "We are a service industry and that means we employ people to provide those services. We want to make sure our compensation plan is appropriately structured."

Hunzeker said he expects to receive the findings by the end of July and the commission will have a workshop to discuss any policy changes or funding recommendations in August. Evergreen completed a similar study in June for Sarasota County.

"I think we are going to see what everyone recognizes and build a plan that won't necessarily get solved overnight but rather over time because our most important asset is the workforce," Hunzeker said. "At the end of the day, we will have to make some final decisions but I am not contemplating changing the budget for any of this."

After more than 20 years of inconsistent pay practices in Manatee County, some employees have not "progressed through the pay range one would expect in a workforce this size," Hunzeker said.

New workers demand more pay and benefits than the county pays, which is a challenge in paying new hires up to the midpoint when many tenured employees are still in the low range, Jim Chesnutt, county Human Resources Division manager, said at a May commission work session.

"That's resulted in a disproportionate number of employees being stagnated in the first quartile of their pay range," he said.

Pay compression, where new employees are hired at salaries comparable to salaries of longer-term employees, is also an issue in Sarasota County, assistant Sarasota County administrator Steve Botelho said.

"We didn't want to start losing good employees to private companies who may be paying more because in the long term that may hurt us," he said.

Evergreen found Sarasota County's minimum pay grades lag an average of 10.5 percent below the market minimum and 2.4 percent below the market midpoint. The maximums were only a percent off from the market.

Over a two-year period, Botelho said the county will try to slot all employees into new pay points.

"Across the state of Florida, this is an issue," he said. "As we come out of the downturn, we all want to provide a good level of service at the best rate possible but we need good staff to do it. Your staff is a critical piece of the puzzle."

While Manatee County has 300 fewer employees than prerecession, county population has grown by about 50,000 people. There are 4.9 employees per 1,000 county residents.

"We have a challenge," Hunzeker said. "We have 50,000 more people in the county than we had in the beginning of the recession that should be receiving the same services as the 300,000 residents here at the beginning of the recession. We haven't been able to rehire those employees we lost and that has created stress in the workforce in trying to meeting the demand."

With property values rising by 8.3 percent, according to county calculations, Hunzeker said the challenge is providing the same level of service to residents with homestead exemptions.

"We just need to work out a long-term plan," he said. "If we get 8.3 percent growth and can't meet the demand of the 50,000, why not? What are we doing with the money? That will be a discussion that goes forward from the July 30 meeting with (the commission) about the lack of diversification in the county's revenue streams. We've put the burden, the government, disproportionately on the back of the countywide property taxpayers."

County commissioners discussed compensation and pay compression at a May work session where Rodney Barnes, county human resources director, said the county is competing for new talent on an ongoing basis. Between 2016 and 2020, the county may have to replace up to 73 percent of employees due to retirement and turnover, according to county data.

"There aren't enough fish in the pond to satisfy all our needs," Barnes said in May.

County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said compensation must be looked at because "we are losing people to the private sector."

"Every time we lose a good employee, it sets us back," Baugh said. "It's like any other business. You just don't want to keep losing all the experience. It is something that we really do need to look at. We need to live within our means. We need to figure out what our priorities are and start taking care of our own, too."

Baugh said county employees "stuck with us through a very difficult time and saw no increase in wages."

"It's time that we do show that we do appreciate what they've done," she said. "We just need to make sure we are being fair to the employees. That's what it boils down to. We need to look out for our people, too."

Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024 or at caronson@bradenton.com. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.

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