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Facing revenue caps, Travis County ponders how to raise employee pay

Wednesday, August 7, 2019 by Jack Craver

With lean years ahead due to state limits on property tax revenue, the Travis County Commissioners Court is grappling with how to effectively and responsibly boost pay for county employees.

On Tuesday, the commissioners discussed what they would like to do when they approve the budget next month.

The preliminary 2019-20 budget proposed by county staff already includes $4.9 million worth of pay increases for the 37 percent of positions a market salary survey concluded were underpaid compared to the market.

The budget also includes $1.28 million to raise the minimum wage for county workers to $15 an hour and to bump up the pay of those making slightly above the minimum wage to avoid “wage compression” between positions.

Finally, another $4.8 million is reserved in the budget for pay increases that have yet to be allocated. It’s up to the commissioners to decide how they want that money spent, or if they want to spend it at all.

The preliminary budget only includes an effective tax increase of 6 percent. A majority of commissioners have said they expect to increase the rate all the way to the 8 percent limit in anticipation of lean years ahead, when a new state law will limit the annual increase to 3.5 percent without voter approval.

Commissioner Jeff Travillion said he was interested in using the money to increase pay for employees who did not get pay hikes via the market survey or the minimum wage increase. He suggested ensuring all of them get at least a 3 percent pay raise.

Carol Guthrie, business manager for AFSCME Local 1624, the union that represents county and city employees, supported that idea.

“We do support making sure that every employee is included this year in a meaningful way. And 2 percent, when you’re at the lower end (of the pay scale), is just not meaningful,” she said.

County budget staff estimated that Travillion’s proposal would cost about $3.9 million.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, however, said she would rather use the $4.8 million for an across-the-board 2 percent pay raise for all employees, regardless of whether their pay is already being bumped up due to other factors.

In general, Eckhardt explained, she would prefer that pay raises be based more on aligning the compensation of positions with the market, rather than giving pay raises to employees. The latter strategy, she said, used to predominate at the county and it led to major issues with wage compression, with managers not making much more than their subordinates.

Commissioner Margaret Gómez relayed ideas she had heard from others on compensation, including capping pay for county staff at $100,000.

Budget staff and fellow commissioners shot down that idea, saying it would seriously hamper the county’s ability to attract and retain professionals in senior positions. There are currently 340 classified staff who make six figures.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, acknowledging that he often resists spending increases, said he would like to give a pay raise to all employees whose pay would not be affected by the market survey. He added that he would like to use any additional money raised by going to the maximum tax rate limit for employee compensation as well.

“If I’m going to vote for something about 6 (percent tax increase), I’d spend it on compensation,” said Daugherty.

Eckhardt urged caution, suggesting they put some of the money into reserve, given the bleak budget situation the county may likely encounter next year.

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