In the second public hearing for the millage rate held Thursday morning, two residents spoke out in support of pay raises for law enforcement and the fire department. Bob Rugg, of Canton, said the only solution to keeping employees in those two departments is to “be certain they’re at a competitive pay level.”
Larry Smith, who voiced his thoughts at the first public hearing, said the county needs to look at a long term solution and budget for salaries in the future.
“These men and women deserve raises. They’ve gone anywhere from five to eight years without one, when it should’ve been in the budget for years,” Smith said. “If there’s $7 million in surplus and you say it takes $4 million for the pay increases, then that’s 0.04 percent of the budget. I could find that somewhere.”
Chairman Buzz Ahrens gave commissioners and those in attendance a growth plan outline and an overview of the four basic principles the county follows — economic development, quality growth, fiscal integrity and environmental stewardship.
“The budget sets what we can and cannot do. We’ve chosen to focus on economic development. We chose to help the cities in marketing the counties by giving $100,000 for the next couple of years,” Ahrens said. “We have been looking at the sale of property. We’re reviewing our financial policies, and we’ve got our fingers crossed that we will be lowering the debt service of Ball Ground (Recycling) by 30 percent.”
Ahrens said those are examples that could impact the county in the future and while it may not generate real revenue, it could help when planning for growth in the coming years. He said he was unsure at the 11 a.m. public hearing Thursday which millage rate he preferred.
Chief Financial Officer Janelle Funk said if $2 million was used from the reserves, pension credit and land sales, the commis-sioners could reduce the general fund’s millage rate to 5.728 and give the 10 percent raises for public safety and 2 percent cost of living adjustment to all county employees.
Commissioner Harry Johnston said the county has rolled back the rate for nearly 14 years, making it harder now to give pay increases and keep property taxes low.
“If you expect to grow county staff as the population grows and incur inflation such as salaries, then we can’t rollback every year, and maybe that’s caught up with us,” Johnston said. “I think raises for everyone is needed. And we can’t fully rollback. So the question is what do we do? Do we go with the highest numbers on this page or come off some? My hope has always been to come off some.”
Johnston also suggested the salary increases should go toward the most competitive positions in need, such as paramedics and others, and not across the board. Cherokee County Sheriff Roger Garrison and Chief Deputy L.V. West said they would not personally take the pay increases.
Commissioner Brian Poole said if the 10 percent increases are approved now, the sheriff’s department would be about 3 to 5 percent below the competitive pay level and the fire department would lower to about 2 to 3 percent.
Commissioner Raymond Gunnin, a former county fire chief, said he supports taking a big tax hit now in order for taxpayers not to see a large hikes in the following years.
“We need pay increases. We’re trying to catch up in one swoop and it’s going to hit people hard,” Gunnin said. “But we won’t see this big tax increase next year.”
Poole suggested the county complete a study on pay levels to see how Cherokee compares to surrounding counties.
Commissioners were set to vote and adopt the millage rate at the final public hearing at 6 p.m. Thursday.