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Berkeley Co. OKs raises for county employees

May 27, 2010|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- The Berkeley County Commission voted 2-1 Thursday to give full-time county employees a 3 percent pay increase and separately decided unanimously to fully shoulder a 17 percent increase in the county's health insurance premium.

In a third vote, commissioners adopted a policy that prescribes how retired employees can continue their life insurance benefit, if they wish to continue to pay 100 percent of the premium.

Life insurance benefits that had been previously extended to two employees who were not eligible because they had not retired, along with 16 other former employees, will be allowed to continue with the county's group plan as long as they pay for it.

The pay increase, which will cost the county $283,637 annually, will go into effect Oct 1. The increase will not be applied to commissioners' salaries or to other county elected officers' pay, which are set by state law.

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The county clerk, circuit clerk, assessor or prosecuting attorney or sheriff will receive a lump sum of money that is equivalent to a 3 percent raise for each of their employees, but each official still has the authority to decide how the additional funding is spent.

County Clerk John W. Small Jr., Circuit Clerk Virginia M. Sine, Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Jean Games-Neely and Sheriff Kenneth M. Lemaster Jr. each indicated in interviews Thursday afternoon that they would give their staff pay increases. Assessor Patricia "Patsy" Kilmer could not be reached at her office.

"Show me the money first," Games-Neely said upon being told of the commission's decision.

Before voting against the pay increase, Commissioner Anthony J. Petrucci questioned the timing, considering the economy and predicted there would be more increases in the county's cost to operate that have yet to surface.

Petrucci noted efforts by the county in the last couple of years to save money given the downturn in revenues.

"I think we're on the right track. I'd just like to stay on that track," Petrucci said. "Is next year a better time for raises? Could be, maybe not. My personal opinion, I'd rather wait."

Aside from spending the money, Petrucci said he was more inclined to support a "sliding scale" raise that would give the largest pay increase to those who earn the lowest salaries.

Petrucci said 85 of county's 251 full-time employees had salaries ranging between $20,000 and $25,000. Petrucci said 19 were paid more than $50,000 annually.

In a press conference Thursday afternoon, Commission President Ronald K. Collins defended his decision to give employees a pay raise, their first since 2007.

"The timing is right, the financing is there and that's why I voted to do it," Collins said.

Collins said new commercial tax revenue would offset additional decreases projected for residential tax collection so the county's budget will be able to withstand the increase in spending. With the increase, the county's payroll will be about $13 million annually, Collins said.

"It won't completely offset it, but by making some good decisions, we can still survive," Collins said.

Collins anticipates there will be "grumbling" among taxpayers about the increase, but said the employees deserved to be rewarded for providing services to the public.

In Thursday's meeting, Commissioner William L. "Bill" Stubblefield said the pay raise was "the right thing to do" for the county's "excellent" employees and said he was very supportive of the increase. The cost of the pay increases nearly matches the $291,000 allocation approved in March by the Commission for "contingency" needs.

As for the life insurance benefit, Deputy County Administrator Alan Davis told commissioners on Thursday that he was opposed to extending it, but noted that state code does not give the county the authority to deny the benefit to an employee if they have retired.

Legal counsel Norwood Bentley III said Thursday that authority rests with the county's insurance carrier.

Davis told commissioners that former Commissioner Howard L. Strauss, though he had not retired upon leaving office in 2006, would be given the opportunity to reinstate his life insurance policy after he was removed last month as a participant.

Until the end of last month, Strauss also was on the county's group health insurance since leaving office, which was deemed to be in violation of state and federal law.

Commissioners on Thursday awarded Wells Fargo Insurance Services of West Virginia Inc. the contract to handle the county's health insurance benefits for the next fiscal year. Jeffrey R. Gibson and Associates was the only other bidder, Davis said.

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