The Henry County government is in charge of making sure the roads are kept up, the public drains flow clear and the jail is safe for inmates and officers alike.
The courthouse keeps land deeds, divorce decrees and meeting minutes safe and organized.
The Justice Building houses voting records and court transcripts, the prosecutors and the public defenders.
Along with running the business of the people, the Henry County government is also itself an employer, writing checks to hundreds of workers each month.
Like nearly every employer these days, the Henry County government is facing calls for higher wages. And when those wages don’t show up, watching employees leave.
The Henry County Council and Commissioners met in a joint work session on July 15 to have frank and open discussion about worker pay. The audience was filled with county department heads and employees.
“With everything going on in the country, with wages rising quickly, we really are trying to figure out what we’re going to do to address the problem,” Council President Susan Huhn said, opening the meeting.
Councilman Clay Morgan had said during previous discussions about worker pay that the local officials keep talking about the problem but don’t really have solution for it.
“That’s true,” Huhn said, asking Morgan, “Have you had any thoughts since then?”
“Not really,” he replied.
Morgan said he’s talked with several county employees who understand the financial realities, “but obviously they would like something to be done.”
Adjust insurance plan?
The county council had been investigating different options over the past few years to help lower costs and possibly free up more money for raises.
One such idea that was suggested even before Covid hit was to cut spouses out of the employee health insurance plan.
Councilman Chad Malicoat found that could save the county $300,000 to $500,000 a year.
Commissioner Bobbi Plummer reached out to some county workers to see what they though of that idea.
“They see it as ‘if you’re taking away my benefits to give me a raise, then you’re not really giving me a raise. You’re not giving me anything. You’re taking something away,’” Plummer said.
Morgan said county employees have told him they would rather things stay the same than lose benefits they currently have.
At the same time, they cannot ignore higher pay offered at other jobs around and outside of Henry County.
“We are losing staff right now. And some of those departments are vital to government,” Morgan said.
Fees, internal changes?
Some county departments, like the Health and Memorial Park departments, have the ability to increase fees to raise the money they use to pay employees or run their areas.
Morgan said other departments have been able to make internal changes to find more money to pay their people, rather than use extra money from the General Fund.
“The problem is I also understand we have some departments that don’t have any availability to do anything because they solely operate through General Fund,” Morgan continued.
He said the council welcomes “creative solutions” as they approach the 2022 budget sessions.
There may not be a one-size-fits-all solution to save the entire county workforce; different departments could find what works for specifically for them, and the total savings could help the county as a whole.
Seeing the need
“I know every day what you’re facing,” Councilman Harold Griffin told the department heads and staff members. “I can see where you’re coming from as a group of county workers.”
Griffin was a former county employee as a law enforcement officers and then as Sheriff.
“People are leaving. We don’t want that,” he continued. “I know the sheriff’s department, for instance, they lost some good deputies because they couldn’t pay them what they felt like they had to have. And it’s the same way with some workers over here (in the courthouse).”
Griffin did not let the audience forget the current realities that deputies and cops face each day they show up to work, even in Henry County.
“Every time they go out, they don’t know what they’re facing. People have to realize the danger of this job... This is not an easy job, especially nowadays. So I can understand entirely what you feel,” he said, looking to Sheriff Ric McCorkle in the audience.
Griffin also acknowledged the stress other county workers feel, pulling 10-hour days to take care of court records and payroll and road repairs.
“This is not a simple solution,” he said.
‘An unsolvable problem’
Commissioner Ed Tarantino said he talked with a county employee before the meeting who makes about $35,000 a year. Their take home pay is closer to $20,000.
“They kept repeating ‘How can you live on $21-22,000 a year?’ That’s a hard question to answer,” Tarantino said.
Tarantino knows prices are rising everywhere. Gas prices. Lumber. Fast food. Rents and home costs. He also knows Henry County has very low paid employees in a lot of areas.
“Obviously, if you’re on a fixed income and you’re not making a whole log of money, things are getting tougher and tougher and tougher,” he said.
Referring to the council, he added, “I really believe the people up here are trying, turning over every rock they can to figure out a way to make things better... It’s almost an unsolvable problem.”
During his talks with employees, someone suggested to Tarantino that retiring employees could be replaced with technology, rather than new people. While this option wouldn’t help the jail, it could help with bookkeeping or the clerk’s office.
He also heard an idea of departments cross-training so they could share staff members and move them around as needed.
“What it really comes down to is how much the taxpayer is willing to pay to get county services,” Tarantino said. “There’s no easy way to solve these problems.”
The Courier-Times will continue coverage of the joint work session in upcoming editions.