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Government budgets may ease workers sacrifices
Hall, Gainesville seek to retain top employees with fiscal decisions
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Elaine Forrester, right, helps customers at the Hall County Tag Office on a busy Friday afternoon. Reductions in furloughs and small cost-of-living pay increases could be in store for some local government employees next year.

In different ways, government leaders in Hall County and Gainesville are looking to ease the burden on their employees after years of budget cuts have been affecting their pocketbooks.

Both governments, like many others across the country, have frozen wages and reduced some benefits for employees as declining revenues have forced reductions. In the meantime, positions have been reduced through layoffs or attrition, adding to the workloads of remaining workers.

It’s a situation familiar to many in the private sector, too.

However, there are signs local governments may begin to ease some of the most drastic measures, even as elected officials deal with another tight budget process this summer. The possible shift comes as concerns are arising that good employees are being driven away in frustration.

When Gainesville City Manager Kip Padgett put forth his proposed budget to Gainesville City Council earlier this month it included a 3 percent pay increase to account for cost-of-living adjustments and a lowering of employee health insurance deductible to from $2,000 to $1,500.

“Our people are one of our greatest assets and they are our ambassadors to the public,” he wrote in a memo to City Council. He called pay increase an effort “to help retain quality employees.”

Those improvements may be modest, but probably still subject to public scrutiny as City Council is also considering a tax millage rate roll-up this year.

When Hall County staff presented the proposed budget, an easing on county furloughs days, implemented in 2008 to reduce costs, were not included. Neither was the reinstatement of contributions to employee retirement plans.

Collectively, those cuts on county employee compensation save more than $4 million annually.

Still, a majority of Hall County commissioners are least talking about a reduction in furlough days and the possibility of returning small contributions for retirement.

Decisions on whether and how to ease pay and benefit burdens on employees is not unique to either government. State and local governments are slowing the rate of pay and benefit reductions and beginning to focus more on retaining employees, according to a survey by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence.

Human resource directors for state and local governments across the country were surveyed on changes to their workforces as governments cut costs. Between 2011 and 2012, respondents reported a drop in the number of additional pay freezes, hiring freezes, furloughs and layoffs.

“We’re seeing improvement. The level of pain, if you will, seems to be diminishing,” said Elizabeth Kellar, the president of the Center for State and Local Government Excellence. The Washington-based organization’s goal is to make local governments more desirable to employers.

However, the level of relief for employees varies, with areas still struggling with high foreclosure rates facing the toughest challenges.

Locally, property tax revenues are projected to fall, again lowering city and county tax digests. But other revenues from sales taxes and some fees are on the rise, officials report.

And while few government coffers are returning to pre-recession levels, there may be a philosophical shift taking place of the effect worker compensation cuts have on service.

“I think there is a greater understanding on the part of elected officials that they can’t keep squeezing on employees or they’re going to have more difficulty holding on to the people they need, and they’re going to have more difficulty recruiting,” Kellar said.

Dick Mecum, who is seeking the chairman’s seat on the Hall County Board of Commissioners, told The Times earlier this month he thinks furloughs and benefit reductions have been costly to taxpayers.

“It has put all of the county employees in a hardship situation and hurt morale,” he said. “You’ve got people with experience and they’re leaving and taking their experience with them.”

That loss of experience means an inevitable reduction in the “quality of service that people expect.”

For now, there isn’t much national data showing local government employees fleeing for private sector jobs.

With unemployment still high, though improving slowly, it’s unclear if many employees would have anywhere else to go.

But Kellar said evidence shows experienced employees are quickening the pace of their retirements and human resource directors are reporting fewer qualified applicants applying for available jobs.

“Anecdotally, hiring has become more difficult,” she said.

The center’s study also shows that employee morale is a concern for most governments.

Nevertheless, it’s unlikely pay increases and benefits are soon returning to pre-recession levels anytime soon.