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Pulaski County JPs vote 11-0 to advance wage scale; jail pay vexes

The Pulaski County Quorum Court endorsed an ordinance Tuesday that adjusts salary guidelines for new hires, though sheriff's office officials worry it won't help their "revolving door" of jail employees.

County jobs fall into two categories: classified and unclassified. Salaries for both groups lag behind competitive market pay, according to a 2017 study.

The Johanson Group, a Fayetteville-based firm, found that the average unclassified employee, who usually has more education and experience, was paid 18 percent below the market average.

Classified employees, the majority of Pulaski County workers, were paid about 10.6 percent below market average.

To rectify this over time, the firm devised new pay scales by calculating each job description's "salary midpoint," or basically what the average going rate would be in a competitive market.

They also calculated salary minimums and maximums for each description.

With those salary ranges in mind, Comptroller Mike Hutchens revised county salary guidelines for new full-time employees and submitted them for Quorum Court approval.

The agenda committee backed that ordinance 11-0 -- four members were absent -- with no discussion Tuesday.

The ordinance says all new full-time employees will be paid at their corresponding minimum salary amounts unless a person meets "exceptionally well-qualified criteria."

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To be exceptionally well-qualified, the person's work experience, training and education allows that person to "master the essential functions" of the job quickly, with less training than other applicants, the ordinance says.

Those candidates can be offered up to 85 percent of the job description's salary midpoint.

A department head can also increase pay for an existing employee to that 85 percent level if that person meets similar standards and the budget allows for it, the ordinance says.

All adjustments must be documented.

There's "not really a difference" between this process and the one in place before the Johanson Group study, Hutchens said when reached by phone. Before, department heads could raise an employee's pay within certain constraints.

The ordinance's sponsor, Phil Stowers, briefly pulled the item from the agenda Tuesday morning after talking with Chief Deputy Mike Lowery at the Pulaski County sheriff's office.

Lowery emailed Stowers a spreadsheet with the current average pay for a deputy, sergeant, captain, lieutenant, major and dispatcher.

He then compared those figures with the Johanson Group pay scales.

For dispatcher, deputy and sergeant, the current average salary is higher than the respective 85 percent midpoint salary, according to the spreadsheet. The annual pay differences ranged from $1,380 to $4,970.

This would put the sheriff's office "in a bind to get qualified applicants," said Lowery when reached by phone.

He used the deputy position as an example.

A deputy is paid, on average, $38,650, according to Lowery's spreadsheet. In the new hiring range, he could offer an applicant the minimum, $33,330, or seek up to $37,277, still less than the current average, he said.

Right now, the jail "is like a revolving door," Lowery said. There are 12 vacancies, soon to be 14, and the enforcement branch is also down four deputies, he said.

"When you're the lowest-paid law enforcement agency in the county, things are tough," he said.

Before the meeting, Stowers said he asked Hutchens if the comptroller could "rerun those numbers" with an 86 percent hiring ceiling instead of 85 percent.

In the meantime, instead of pulling the ordinance, which would "hold up the rest of county government," Stowers said he kept it on the agenda to be possibly amended at a future date.

Hutchens emphasized that the ordinance just establishes a "hiring range."

A lot of county employees make above 85 percent of their midpoint salaries, and no existing employees will be paid less, Hutchens said.

"I don't know why everybody is so confused. All this is, is replacing [the existing rating system] with a percentage range," Hutchens said, referencing the former way the county categorized pay scales.

Stowers said he hoped to see the financial analysis before the next Quorum Court meeting on Feb. 27.

He and Lowery acknowledged that boosting that 85 percent figure might not be an option. It all comes down to "the big ol' word with five letters in it," Lowery said.

"M-O-N-E-Y."

Metro on 02/14/2018

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