Faced with robust growth in the county tax base of nearly 15 percent, commissioners decided at last week’s day-long budget workshop to speed up the granting of employee pay hikes it originally planned to spread out over five years.
With unanimous support, commissioners backed going beyond granting the raises initially planned for the 2023-24 fiscal year, which is year 3 of a five-year phasing-in of pay rate recommendations proposed by Evergreen Solutions LLC in 2021.
Evergreen studied 17 markets which it said had similar characteristics as Franklin, and proposed a sweeping overhaul to bring the county in line with compensation packages found in these cities and towns.
But because the more than $1.5 million price tag for making the jump was seen as being too steep a sudden climb, the commissioners planned a five-year phase-in, with year 4 in 2024-25 being a more costly step because minimum wage requirements all had to be in place by then.
Following a presentation by the many county departments and constitutional offices – in which most, but not all, kept their budgets either flat or growing by low single digits – commissioners used savings from contingency monies, along with shifting two sheriff’s deputy positions to be funded out of the 3 percent lodging tax monies collected by the Tourist Development Council, and use these funds this year to fully fund year 4 of the Evergreen plan.
County Finance Director Erin Griffith said year 3 funding, already factored into the various department budgets, would cost about $351,000, and year 4 would be about $400,000, making the pay hikes slated for the upcoming 2023-24 fiscal year to total about $750,000.
Both Griffith and County Coordinator Michael Morón told commissioners that the staggered phasing-in of Evergreen had caused discontent among some employees.
“The Evergreen plan has been an absolute nightmare for me because I hear it from everybody,” said Griffith. “Those who did suffer a compression issue got big increases.”
Because Evergreen had proposed a raising of entry level pay, in some cases there had been a “compression” issue, which meant employees with seniority would be making little more than those new on the job.
“We’re trying to address a problem but it’s not going to happen overnight,” said Griffith. “We’re trying to come up with a classification and pay plan.”
Morón told commissioners the county charged Evergreen “with doing just the compression issue. They used job classifications simply to do that. Some of it wasn’t enough, and some employees didn’t fill out the assessment tool correctly.
“We kind of forced them (Evergreen) into a five-year plan but that’s not what they recommended,” he said. “I think there was some blame on Evergreen for doing something that we didn’t ask them to do and went against what they had recommended.
“It’s a juggling act,” Morón said. “We’re trying to fix a problem that’s been created over years, and there’s no way you can fix it in five years.”
Commission Chairman Ricky Jones, who backed accelerating the Evergreen plan, said the county has worked hard to do right by its workforce.
“Yes, people at the top have got more money but they’re the ones that were compressed,” he said. “We’ve tried to make it better. Are we there yet? We’re doing what we can.”
Jones’ colleagues each voiced support for boosting pay, led by Noah Lockley, who was critical of what he said were insufficient yearly increases under the Evergreen model.
“It’s time to straighten it out, and get this nightmare behind us,” he said. “1 percent (raises annually) ain’t going to get it.”
Both Lockley and Cheryl Sanders supported boosting department budgets with monies that then could be used to reward exceptional employees.
“They need an amount to do that, but it needs to be performance-based,” said Sanders. “Right now the way it is is the employees are very much scrutinized, and department heads need to have discretion and not have to be scrutinized by the public.
“As long as they work with the amount of money we give them, I have no problem with that,” she said. “You don’t know everything that employees go through. We need to have a mechanism, we don’t need to be micromanaging.”
Jessica Ward spoke strongly in support of employee pay hikes, a point she reiterated at Tuesday’s county commission meeting when she stressed that pay was essential if the county wanted to retain quality staffers.
“We have to take care of our county employees,” she said. “With starting pay at $29,000, nobody can live off of that, sorry. We need to be making sure our county employees are taken care of. Let’s look at it; Franklin County is among the lowest counties among the 67 in Florida with the lowest millages.”
Ward also warned her colleagues that next year would likely see budget shortfalls, as the housing bubble may burst.
“It’s a precarious issue, in order to fund a county that’s growing by leaps and bounds like Franklin County is,” she said. “I can guarantee we are not going to have a tax base like we have (this year).”
Ottice Amison said that he has seen first hand during his short term in office what county employees often face. “We run this county on a skeleton crew (and) you got people who are wearing many hats.” he said. “I consider myself a conservative, but at the end of the day, it’s a juggling act.”
Both Sheriff A.J. Smith and Library Director Whitney Roundtree spoke out regarding the difficulty in retaining employees.
“I lost three deputies last month to the cities, and I lost corrections folks to the state,” said the sheriff. “They don’t work here just because they love A.J. Smith, trust me. They’re making $17 an hour, and Rocky’s had a sign for $18 an hour to work at Rocky’s.
“You don’t want unqualified uncommitted people working at your sheriff’s office,” Smith said.
Roundtree, who has four full-time and one part-time staffer between the two library branches, said the department’s turnover “has been notoriously high. Basically, it equates my employees to minimum wage workers.”
She said that her starting salary before the first Evergreen study was at a point where “I would have looked for another job. I got a significant raise so I’m somewhere closer to other department heads.”
After making some adjustments largely based on forecasts of fuel costs and postage rates, the commissioners tentatively approved the various budgets before them.
The largest of these, the sheriff’s budget at a little over $7 million, will include the hiring of two new deputies whose full-time year-round role will be to handle St. George Island, focusing on everything from traffic and parking problems to theft to abuse of the beaches and roads.
“That’s where the majority of tourists are going,” Smith said. “We put out a traffic counter one weekend and 30,000 cars went there. They come here because Franklin County is a safe community. We’re going to need more people to do it because we’re overwhelmed with traffic complaints.”
He said he has appealed to the Florida Highway Patrol for more help. “They gave me a song-and-dance that they are understaffed,” Smith said. “It remains to be seen if we’ll get help from them.”
A Republican officeholder, Smith also took a veiled jab at the DeSantis’ administration to send law enforcement help to secure the nation’s southern border.
“What about my borders?” he said. “Franklin County has borders that have to be protected. There are drivers that endanger lives and we see that every day.”
Because of a recent change in state law, the TDC can now earmark funds to cover the cost of public safety, and so commissioners were able to find savings in the sheriff’s budget by shifting those deputies’ cost.
That process of securing TDC approval will take a little longer than the county budget, and Smith said he was fine with doing that, provided the funding ultimately comes through.
“If it wasn’t needed, trust me, I would not ask for it,” said the sheriff. “Give them a little relief with a couple of bodies to help with the tourism that’s coming here.”
While most every department said single-digit increases, the supervisor of elections office will see a nearly 35 percent hike in its budget, in part due to next year being a presidential election year, with a spring primary as well.
The main increase, though, is for upgrading the office’s information technology, a cost that had in the past been offset by federal grant funds.
“The increased poll workers’ pay and postage is tremendous for our office,” said Elections Chief Heather Riley. “The server tabulation system has to be upgraded. The voting booths are rickety and rusty and have had to be pieced together,” she said, noting that the department’s budget is in line with the median increase in small counties of 15 percent, when the boost to IT costs is not factored in.
“As long as you have elections you have to have that,” said Sanders.
Riley said work is continuing on replacing the roof of the building that the office leases in Apalachicola. “Now we don’t have to worry about it getting wet when it rains,” she said. “We’re busting at the seams, and the building deterioration hasn’t had a lot of upkeep.
“It’s OK as long as we can continue patching to get through this election year,” she said. “I don’t know how much longer the building’s going to hold up.”
The Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, which in past years has been vocal about raising issues with the Evergreen study, that it will balloon employee costs, has not weighed in yet on the proposed budget.
Prior to the meeting, Mason Bean, the new CCFC president, said he had met with Griffith to review numbers prior to the workshop.
“We’re here to be on your team, we’re here to help and assist,” he said. “If you can trim $500,000 worth of fat, we’d appreciate it.”
At the conclusion of the workshop, Sanders summed up her colleagues’ sentiment regarding accelerating the Evergreen plan.
“The biggest thing we did today is go ahead and do two years, and get that out of the way,” she said.
What you’ll pay
The county commission plans to keep the millage rate at 5.4707 mills, which means with the growth in the tax base of about 14.6 percent, homesteaded taxpayers will be seeing a 3 percent increase in their tax bills.
Those whose properties are not homesteaded will see an increase of no more than 10 percent on their taxable value, as per state law.
In her report to the county commission, Finance Director Erin Griffith said each mill will generate about $3.04 million next year, which means that with the millage rate unchanged, the county will receive about $2.1 million more than this year, from $14.5 million to $16.1 million.
By keeping the millage rate unchanged, the county would be adopting a rate which would yield about 12.3 percent, or about $1.8 million, more than the roll-back rate, which would be 4.8734 mills. The reason the increased revenue is about $300,000 less than the difference in the total proceeds is because the roll-back rate does not take into effect the amount transferred to Carrabelle’s tax increment district nor does it include the added value of new construction.
The overall county budget is about $96.5 million, but that includes various grants and other state and federal funding, as well as special funds such as the health care trust fund generated by the one-cent sales surtax.
The balance in the health care trust fund will grow by more than $2.44 million, and the Weems Memorial Hospital will be $3.28 million more than the prior year.
Griffith said the airport fund has an additional $2.4 million in grant-funded projects for the upcoming year.
She told commissioners that 2006-7 saw a market high of $4.1 billion in taxable value, with budgeted ad valorem proceeds of $15.8 million and 1919 budgeted positions. Fifteen years later, the county’s taxable value is $3.09 billion, with proposed ad valorem proceeds of $16.6 million and 190 positions.
What the numbers say
The following is a summary of the proposed budgets of the constitutional offices and various county departments, as proposed at last week’s budget workshop. Please note that final numbers are still being arrived at by Finance Director Erin Griffith and that numbers include only local funding, and not state and federal grants.
2022-23 $6.78 million
2023-24 $7.06 million
Up $280,000 or 4.11 %
Up $10,192 or 1.41%
Up $41,227 or 6.26%
Supervisor of Elections
Up $152,587 or 34.9%
Clerk of Courts
Up $1,372 or 0.34%
2022-23 $1.38 million
2023-24 $1.38 million
2022-23 $1.79 million
2023-24 $1.85 million
Up $60,000 or 2.61%
Up $6,122 or 2.60%
Parks & Recreattion
Up $78,335 or 9.53%
Up $2,039 or 0.63%
Up $21,028 or 11.86%
Up $39,241 or 38.2%
Up $11,892 or 9.43%
Up $39,957 or 15.1%