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Lee salary increases buck area trend

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Lee County officials said Monday it's not happenstance or coincidence that county employees have enjoyed yearly cost-of-living increases since the 2007-08 fiscal year that, with the planned 3 percent FY 2012 COLA, will total 18 percent.

Indeed, they point to the yearly increases with pride.

"It's something we're proud of in Lee County," said CPA Bill Williams, who with Lee Commission Chairman Ed Duffy serves on the commission's Finance Committee. "We feel we have some of the best employees in the state of Georgia, and we want to reward them.

"We want to keep our employees, so we make them a priority. I think a lot of places kind of put their employees on the backburner, but we take the opposite approach."

While surrounding municipal and county governments have furloughed, laid off or even eliminated employees during the lingering historic economic recession, the Lee County Commission has made every effort to keep and reward its 340 employees.

In FY 2008, before recession tightened its grip on the state and nation, and at the height of a substantial growth spurt in the county, Lee employees received a 6 percent pay boost. More modest 3 percent increases followed in FYs 2009, 2010 and 2011. That four-year largess came with a price tag of $1,028,955.

If the commission gives final approval to the planned FY 2012 COLA, that will add up to another $210,975.

"It's definitely tougher to keep a budget in check when revenues are down," County Finance Director Heather Kittrell said. "But that's one of the great things about the commissioners here. They make it almost a priority to try and budget increases for the county's employees.

"I think one of the areas where we've been fortunate is that our health insurance hasn't gone up. A lot of governments are giving cost-of-living increases to offset insurance increases. I recently read that, I believe it was Decatur County, gave its employees a 5 percent COLA, but their insurance costs went up 15 percent."

Duffy said that while he and Williams go over the county's budget with a fine-toothed comb, they wouldn't be able to work in the employee salary increases without the help of their department heads.

"When Bill and I started serving on the Finance Committee, we took a close look at our employees' salaries and saw there were some serious inequities," the commission chairman said. "We felt many of our employees were underpaid, so we started trying to correct those inequities.

"Our department heads have sacrificed, have delayed needed capital outlay projects, so that their employees could get these pay increases. We're fortunate to have excellent department heads who've worked with us to circumvent tax increases."

Williams said the cost-of-living increases are not written into the county's initial working budget, but he mentally includes the funding during the process.

"I kind of get a number in my mind that it will take (to fund the increases)," Williams said. "And I try to plan it so I can work that number into the budget. I just feel that cutting (employees and employee salaries) is taking the easy way out.

"And we have a lot of department heads who come to us early in the budget process and tell us they want to do everything they can to get their people more money."

Dougherty County employees, who have had to take furlough days the last two years, have not had a cost-of-living increase since 2008.

City of Albany employees haven't gotten a COLA since 2006, but the city's proposed FY 2012 budget includes a 2 percent increase.

Albany employees did, however, receive increases through the phasing in of a pay study that was first implemented in 2007.

-- Staff writer J.D. Sumner contributed to this report.