Manatee County employees deserve equitable pay

Manatee County commissioners wisely reversed course on the stubborn issue of pay increases for county employees, particularly public safety workers. But that came only after hearing the heart-wrenching details about the sorry state of affairs for employees trying to eke out a living after five years without a raise.

The situation reached a boiling point over two consecutive weeks as dozens of angry sheriff's deputies and emergency medical workers descended on commission meetings, the first time to no avail as commissioners denied wage hikes.

But a week later commissioners were clearly embarrassed by speakers recounting difficulties paying their mortgages, falling into foreclosure and even affording day care.

One dismayed paramedic complained about making less than a bartender who earned just under $12 an hour at the county's own convention center.

Commissioners finally got the message then, unanimously approving $1.7 million for pay increases in mid-September. The commission expects to give final approval to the $464 million budget for fiscal year 2012-2013 on Oct. 1.

Sheriff Brad Steube has been lobbying commissioners for several years to approve wage hikes, citing the loss of deputies to nearby law enforcement agencies with higher pay scales.

Starting salaries in various Hillsborough and Pinellas agencies exceed Manatee County's by some $5,000 to more than $10,000 annually. Who would not be compelled to head north for that pay? Worse, though, Manatee County ends up paying for the training of replacement deputies at a steep price.

Attrition is also a problem in the EMS department with 19 employees leaving since January.

But another problem exists, one known as "pay compression." As county Administrator Ed Hunzeker explained, "A person hired today for any job in county government will make the same amount as someone who has been here six years." Experience should count for something, but apparently not money in the current circumstances.

None of this comes as a surprise to commissioners. Last year there was talk of a small property tax increase to fund public safety employee raises but like this year the idea died on the vine. This issue should be raised again. The 2012-2013 budget does not contain a millage rate hike. In fact, property taxes are 1.1 mill lower than five years ago.

The new budget does contain a 3 percent pay increase for all county employees, though constitutional officers such as the sheriff will have to determine how to dole that out.

With Florida's government employees forced to contribute 3 percent of their salaries into their pensions as of last year, and with fuel, food and other living costs rising, that raise does not allow workers to gain ground. But the additional $1.7 million will help but won't solve all the outstanding issues.

The old adage "you get what you pay for" should be a concern to the county. Noncompetitive low pay will not attract highly skilled employees who appreciate their value in the marketplace and the demand for their talents. The best and the brightest currently on staff can find opportunities elsewhere.

The county cannot afford to allow pay compression and other inequities to fester for another year. In mid-October, commissioners will hold a workshop on employee compensation -- likely at a large venue to accommodate some of the 3,100 county workers whose stories should be heard by our elected officials. We need bold leadership and solutions now, not later.