Bedford County Mayor Chad Graham gave a presentation Tuesday evening to explain the new pay scale correction for county employees. Graham gave the talk to justify the recent property tax rate increase from $1.97 to $2.32—one which County Finance Director Robert Daniel said should generate $4.2 million in revenue.
Four million from the tax rate increase is dedicated to this payroll correction, Daniel explained.
Graham said, “So, when we look at this number and it seems like a great number—$4 million—at one time here for this body, this really is just catching-up.”
Essentially, the County has been using an “archaic system” of payment that has led employee salaries to average 22 percent under market value for the County as well as cause high turnover rates for otherwise long-term employees, according to Graham.
“There’s such disparity in some of the departments—just doing fuzzy math—you’ve got positions that are easily $10,000-$12,000 off of what they ought to be making annually. Then, you’ve got some that are $2,000. And we’ve got a few that are pretty close to what the fair market value said that job happened to be,” said Graham.
Therefore, not every job will see a significant increase. But others will.
This will be the first comprehensive pay model restructuring since the adoption of the 1981 Act in 2006, according to the mayor.
Graham said, “They had some scales they had built once the finance department came over to the county government . . . and they started basically with some dollar amounts that start at 1 percent increments down through 20 years to generate numbers. They weren’t necessarily tying them to specific pay or jobs.”
He added during his talk, “It had no system to the madness or anything about where the scale came from or how it was built,” Graham continued. “But the scale was never built on fair market value or what the job description was set up to be a part of.”
Essentially, employees were simply placed on the scale based on what they made when the ‘81 Act went into effect. Therefore, pay has not kept pace with the ever-changing market due to this lack of a comprehensive structure for an employee to fall into when they are hired, according to Graham.
“You can have a lot of things happen, like you can have new employees come work for you that make more than the people that have been with you 10 years,” Graham said. Even though that could still happen with this new pay scale model, Graham said they want that to be a rare exception, not a rule.
Establishing the minimum
A 2021 public sector salary survey (by compensation management firm Burris, Thompson & Associates) defines Bedford as a “small market” county, based on population.
“I want to establish the minimum starting pay rate for a specific job description based on this Burris-Thompson study that we’re going to use,” said Graham. “Because if we can get the minimum starting pay correct...then you build your 1 percent-step increments on top of that mathematically through the 30 years. That’s the model we put together.”
This “line zero” is especially important for infusing cost of living into the equation.
For reference, there are 438 total employees in Bedford across 40 various positions. Of those, 360 are full-time; 78 part-time.
The goal is to make these county service jobs competitive in the job market as well as aid in recruitment of highly skilled employees, Graham explained.
On average, Graham said over 70 percent of full-time staff have less than 1.5 years of experience.
Graham, who has served on Bedford County school board, said the school system has a similar model to what the county wants to use.
They’re infusing $2.1 million into their pay scale for teachers this year, according to Daniel. Last year, another $2 million went to non-teacher positions.
Though it’s not part of the model, Graham discussed that family health premiums are “beyond the employees’ ability to pay” (about $1,200 per month). If approved later on, this family health insurance contribution will cost an estimated $5 million, he advised. Currently the county pays zero dollars toward family health insurance for employees. The school system, however, pays about 80 percent or 100 percent for individual coverage.
Many county officials wanted to do this pay scale restructuring sooner, at the start of Graham’s first term. But COVID hit and halted a lot of workshops as well as aid from Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro to redefine job descriptions.
Graham said they also wanted to focus on restructuring job descriptions.“ . . . didn’t want to be in a situation where we had people doing the same job in different departments, making different amounts for the same job.”
One commissioner requested new pay for each employee. However, Graham said they do not have that information yet since they do not know if the model is going to be approved.
Even though the goal of the meeting was not to debate specific job salaries, Graham provided a few examples (not what an employee actually makes, due to confidentiality) but to show how the model would work.
For example, looking at the assistant director of elections, the small market, median actual pay is $17.79, starting minimum. Bedford’s current minimum pay rate is $14.30.
“These are the kind of disparities and crazy gaps you’re seeing in pay all over the County,” Graham said. “Part of the problem was probably when the employee got hired, they just had so much money, they figured out where on the scale something that could equate to that yearly money.”
With the new scale, this job would receive $17.97 (a 1% increase from $17.79) the next year until at year 30, the employee would make $23.98 per hour.
Graham said ideally, they want to be in the median actual pay rate. “But sometimes that number is too big. We can’t afford it with the money we have. In that case, we can drop back to the minimum starting pay.”
Another example is EMA. Ideally, they would like to pay the fire chief $51.97 per hour. Graham said, however, since the County cannot afford that, they can fall back to the median start rate of $40.45, which according to the survey is a fair market value for a medium market. Currently for Bedford County, the minimum pay for a public safety chief starts at $27.29.
On the other hand, the finance director makes close to what he or she is supposed to. Ideally, the finance head is supposed to make a minimum of $52.71. Currently, that minimum rate is $51.95
Graham added that they will have to look at “anomalies.” For example, if a pay increase calls for $40,000, they will make specific adjustments for that position. “This is the beginning, not the end,” said Graham.