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Halifax County commissioners today approved its budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Discussions afterward zeroed in on better pay for all employees, which has been an issue since budget deliberations began.

The $43,682,546 financial plan does include a $300 bonus for full-time employees and a $150 bonus for part-time employees. The budget does not include a tax rate increase or dip into fund balance.

The pay issue has been central in the budget deliberations, with Sheriff Wes Tripp highlighting the matter prior to a public hearing held on June 3 and again last week when the board and the sheriff found themselves at odds with one another. They have since settled the dispute.

Commissioner Linda Brewer told the board, “If we are in a better position we don’t wait until next fiscal year,” to address pay.

Commissioner Marcelle Smith said this budget year was one of the most challenging. “It’s always been a concern. We definitely need to look at pay for my people in public service” and for all county employees.

“My colleagues made a pledge and I expect them to hold to that pledge,” Smith said.

Smith suggested the county in the future may have to explore the option of a tax increase to fund salary increases. “We’re not going to be able to find money falling out of the sky. I understand we have a lot of turnover.”

Smith said not only does the sheriff’s office become training grounds for other agencies because of pay, “A lot of other agencies become training grounds.”

Smith estimated a 1-cent tax decrease the board approved last year would have equaled a 2 percent pay increase.

Still, however, he advised against dipping into fund balance to implement a pay increase.

Board Chair Vernon Bryant said afterward, “I 100 percent support what we approved today.”

He said, however, “We have to do better with salaries.”

He echoed Brewer’s comments on the possibility of not having to wait until the fiscal year following the upcoming one to address the matter. “We may not have to wait if we don’t have any major bumps in the road.”

Bryant reiterated what he said in an interview last week that the board will concentrate on potential salary increases going from bottom to top. “The lower salaried employees are to be the focus.”

In an email he sent Sunday to numerous people, Commissioner Rives Manning noted there is a problem with the salaries of lower pay grade employees.

“In the past when we gave employees a raise, it was a flat percent raise — it was the same percent raise to all employees,” he wrote. “Those in the same grade and step receive the same pay no matter what department they are in.”

He said in the email, “If we give a 2 percent raise to all employees, the one making $30,000 would receive an additional $600 while the one making $90,000 would receive $1,800. If we give 6 percent to all employees the employee making $30,000 would receive a raise of $1,800 and the employee making $90,000 would receive a raise of $5,400.”

He noted the monetary figures and annual salaries are before taxes.

But, he wrote, “We have been told there is a problem with the salaries of (our) lower pay grade employees. We have also been told that the salaries of most of our mid- to upper pay grade employees is not out of line.”

Said Manning in the email: “We realize that the salaries of our lower pay grade employees is too low and we need to find a way to get them into line without driving the salaries of the higher pay grade employees way out of line.”

He said, “This is not a problem we could fix in a couple of weeks here at the end of the fiscal year … It takes much search, research and discussions to work something out. That takes a little time to put together. That is why we proposed giving a $300 bonus to all full-time employees and $150 to all part-time employees. That amounts to a 1 percent bonus for the employee making $30,000 but it is only a .3 percent increase to an employee making $90,000.”

Manning concluded, “I believe our lower pay grade employees need a pay raise more than our higher pay grade employees. That is what we will be working on and how to work through it and correct any other inequities in our payroll structure.”