Pay study says Habersham behind some of its neighbors; county looks to raise pay

Habersham County Administration building (Daniel Purcell/Now Habersham)

After spending months blaming poor job retention and recruitment rates on low salaries, the Habersham County Commission now has some data to back up its argument. The management consulting firm Evergreen Solutions released its initial findings to the commission earlier this week. The firm found that Habersham County’s starting pay is below that of some surrounding communities. However, internally, most staff are paid above the midpoint due to their tenure.

The 18 counties and cities on which Evergreen Solutions based its Habersham County pay study.

In February, the commission voted to pay Evergreen Solutions $34,500 to conduct the study. The decision was based on the recommendations of Habersham County Manager Alicia Vaughn and Human Resource Director Ann Cain.

Evergreen Project Manager Stasey Whichel presented commissioners with the preliminary findings of the study on September 19.

The study concluded that Habersham County employee pay when compared to similar public sector positions (externally) was below average.  Employees were paid 4.6% below the market minimum, 10.6% below the market midpoint, and 14.4% below the market maximum.  This was determined by surveying 18 counties and cities in the Northeast Georgia region.

The study did not include private sector data. Private sector data was only used as anecdotal data because there is no direct comparison between the public and private sectors.  According to Whichel, “private sector is not a great direct compare to the public sector but I do use it to kinda go back and do a round check against where we’re sitting……and kind of using it as anecdotal data.”

Evergreen Solutions began their study in March of this year.  The goals of the study were as follows:

  1. Review current classifications/job descriptions and compensation systems to ensure equitable pay within the county.
  2. Survey peer (external) organizations to ensure external equity.
  3. Produce recommendations to provide the county with a compensation and classification system that is internally and externally equitable.

The data collected during the assessment period revealed that the county had 410 employees.  This included elected officials and appointed positions. The county also had 6 compensation plans broken out as follows with starting rates for each plan:

  1. General Pay Plan starting rate at $10.03
  2. 911-Communications Pay Plan starting rate at $11.07
  3. Administrative/Executive Pay Plan starting rate at $60,657
  4. Fire/EMS Pay Plan starting pay rate at $8.18
  5. Roads & Bridges starting pay rate at $10.55
  6. Sheriff Plan starting pay rate $10.36

The data also revealed that the average tenure of a county employee was 9 years. The compensation structure revealed that the Plans did not follow best management practices. According to Whichel, what that means is “just the inconsistencies you (the county) have across the different plans. The grouping of the classifications. There were several classifications that weren’t assigned to one of the paygrades. They were not on scale.”

Evergreen Solutions surveyed employees as well. In this survey, they studied all employee classifications. A cross-section of employees was interviewed as well as focus groups to collect data. Employees shared why they came to work with the county and why they have stayed. The top responses were:

  • Location
  • Retirement and benefits
  • Work Environment
  • Supportive Leadership
  • Stability/Job Security
  • Connection to the Community

However, employees also shared many of their concerns about their classifications and compensation.

  • Salaries were not keeping up with neighboring towns and counties.
  • Internal compression between salaries.
  • Inconsistencies across departments.
  • Job descriptions did not contain some major roles and responsibilities which have been added over time.
  • Would like additional career growth opportunities.

Evergreen Solutions did find that the current classification system was appropriate. However, they did recommend that the classifications reflect contemporary titles and job duties.

Their recommendations for compensation changes were to be at the 50th percentile of the market average, provide consistency in structure, allow flexibility moving forward, and reduce their Pay Plans from 6 Plans to 4 Plans. 

The Plans would be:

  • General Plan with a starting pay of $12.50 an increase of 24.6%
  • 911 Plan with a starting pay of $13.75 an increase of 24.2%
  • Fire/EMS Plan with a starting pay of $12.50 an increase of 52.8%
  • Sheriff Plan with a starting pay of $12.50 an increase of 20.66%
Here is what the new Pay Plans would look like as recommended by Evergreen Solutions.

To reduce salary compression within classifications, the recommendation is to increase the salary range spread from right at 40% to 50% and in some cases 60%.  The range spread is the percent increase from the minimum salary to the maximum salary.  Evergreen Solutions also recommends that the Grade Progression in each Plan increase from 4.5%-12.5% to 5%-30% depending on the Plan.  

Other recommendations include:

  1. Adopt the proposed classification changes within the current system so job titles accurately reflect work performed. 
  2. Adopt the proposed Pay Plans to address pay inequities and bring consistency to the compensation system.
  3. Transition employees’ salaries into the proposed Pay Plans utilizing an approach consistent with County policy. 
  4. Update current job descriptions and corresponding FLSA status to align with the selected classification structure and be reflective of the employee-provided JAT (job assessment tool) information.
  5. Conduct small-scale salary surveys as needed to assess the market competitiveness of hard-to-fill classifications and/or classifications with retention issues and make changes to pay grade assignments, if necessary. 
  6. Conduct a comprehensive classification study every five years, subject to budget constraints and market conditions. 
  7. Review, revise, or develop as appropriate, pay practice guidelines, including those for determining salaries of newly hired employees, progressing employees through the Pay Plan, and determining pay increases for employees who have been promoted to a different classification. 

Evergreen Solutions still has several tasks to complete in the next several weeks. They must finalize the report, train human resources in the study methodology, and provide drafts of updated job descriptions.

Next steps

Following Whichel’s presentation, Vaughn informed the commissioners that she would be meeting with all of the department heads to go through the classifications and job descriptions to make sure that all of the employees are correctly classified and have job descriptions. From there, they will look to see what it will take to get all of the employees at least up to the minimum salary and then figure out how to give employees some sort of minimum increase. Vaughn said they will also address any salary compression issues.

County administrators were unable to give the commission any kind of dollar amount as to what it will take to raise salaries but said the money is in the budget and they would bring this forward to the commission for their guidance. 

Whichel informed the commission they are in the process of drafting the final report and that it would be available “very soon.” 

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