Board discusses merit vs. longevity raises for county employees

Last updated: September 18. 2013 5:27PM - 3366 Views
Dylan Lightfoot Staff Writer dlightfoot@civitasmedia.com

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The Ashe County Board of Commissioners Monday considered a proposal for a motocross track extending into Ashe County Park, and discussed merit-based versus longevity pay raises for county employees.

Director of Parks and Recreation Scott Turnmyre reported that GNCC (Grand National Cross Country) Racing, a West Virginia-based motocross series, had shown interest in building an eight-mile race track adjacent to, and partially inside of, Ashe County Park.

Turnmyre said, over the past six months, he had had several discussions about the possible motocross track with Lansing resident Dan Powers, who is affiliated with GNCC.

Powers’ had outlined a plan for a racetrack on land adjoining the park, but also utilizing “a corner of the park up on the higher ridge line,” Turnmyre said. A “pit area” would be established on park property near the lakeview shelter.

The park also offers an attractive site for camping by race attendees and participants, he said.

“Initially I thought ‘let’s not even pursue this. The dynamics of the park are really a question,’” he said.

“After listening to him talk about the numbers of visitors that would come into Ashe County for these kind of events, I thought it might be best for us to…make everyone aware of this kind of event and what it could do,” he said.

Turnmyre referred to county ordinance 157, “That would probably restrict, without some sort of special action by the commission…the use of parkland or, in fact, anywhere near the park for this event.”

According to the ordinance, “Location of a racetrack shall be more than 2,640 feet from a…state, federal, or local public park….” 

“…a racetrack for a motor sport event shall be more than 1,000 feet from a residential dwelling unit or commercial building, unless permission of the owner or lawful occupant is granted…and specifies the applicable time period,” the ordinance reads.

Based on the language in the ordinance, County Attorney John Kilby said event organizers would have to secure “a large number of waivers” from area residents, and a “major revision” of the ordinance would be required to allow use of park property.

Commissioner Judy Poe noted that any racing event would also be affected by the county noise ordinance.

Commissioner Gerald Price said of the proposal, “I’ve been going to motocross events for (the past) four years, and I’m telling you, it brings in an awful, awful lot of people…the kind of people you do want.”

“I think we need to make some kind of variances…and try to get some kind activity in the county to stimulate it financially,” Price said.

“We should any way possible work to get that,” said Commissioner Gary Roark.

Turnmyre said the track would have to be approximately 30 feet wide.

Poe expressed concern about a bulldozing an eight-mile “two-lane highway up through the woods,” adding “I’d rather stay off the park property.”

Chairman Larry Rhode said the noise was his main concern.

Rhodes asked Turnmyre to “continue doing homework” for the board to consider the proposal again later.

Merit pay for employees?

Roark asked the board to discuss”going back to the merit system” of determining county employee compensation.

Ashe County’s roughly 300 employees currently work on a longevity pay system, which stages 15 automatic pay increases across a 30-year career of service, according to Director of Finance Sandy Long.

Raises of 2.5 percent are given at four, seven and nine years of service, then at 11, 13, 15 and 16 years, then every other year until 30, Long said.

Adopted by Ashe County in the early ’90s, the longevity system was “designed to reward uninterrupted service to the county,” Kilby said.

“This is a never-ending process that just keeps promoting people right on and on,” said Roark.

“A few years back, a factory worker made more than a county worker. Now, a county worker gets double what a factory worker does in Ashe County,” he said.

“I don’t agree with it. We need to go to merit pay,” said Poe.

Poe presented cases where some county employees had received raises two or more years in a row.

Explaining two exceptions to the longevity schedule, Long said some employees are hired at a “training rate,” and are given raises when they meet requirements, while a few who had not received automatic raises have been on a “catch-up” plan, getting raises every year until they are on schedule.

Poe said the system was confusing.

“The taxpayers out here, they’re the ones paying the bills,” she said.

Kilby said longevity pay can be “considered as deferred compensation…which is generally considered to be vested.”

The board could eliminate longevity pay for new hires from a chosen date forward, but whether they could eliminate it for current employees was unclear, he said.

“Can we cut down the amount of the raises?” Poe asked.

“Not if it’s vested,” Kilby said, adding that the board has absolute control over compensation, and could reduce salaries to offset the cost of raises.

Citing his experience as a Duke power executive, Commissioner Williams Sands said a merit pay system is “fair, but quite a job.” Regular employee performance reviews require “lots of training and work” for department heads, he said.

“I feel like we’d need a county manager in place,” said Sands.

With the consensus of the board, Rhodes tabled the issue “until a manager is on board.”

Employees appreciated

Rhodes expressed his appreciation of county employees who have “definitely stepped up in the last few weeks” in the absence of an acting county manager.

“You’re doing more than your job description says and than you usually do so I do offer my sincere appreciation for that, and taking the county in hand, and your job that serious, and working overtime…I do appreciate that,” Rhodes said.

Media criticized

Responding to a Sept. 13 article in the Jefferson Post in which commissioners responded to widespread rumors of Jonathon Jordan’s potential appointment as county manager, Roark said, “I’d appreciate it if they’d basically do a little research before they print all these rumors in the paper.”

“Also, two more people I’d like to direct that at: Remi Wingo in West Jefferson and Ken Lynn in Fleetwood. I wish you guys would do a little research, too. At no time have I talked to Jonathon Jordan about being county manager, and I don’t know where you come up with these ideas that three commissioner have done picked Jonathon Jordan as county manager,” Roark said.

“I suggest in the future you get your facts right before you print my name in the paper,” he said.

Price concurred with Roark, saying “I have been contacted by (Jordan) through mail and voicemail, but I have not verbally communicated with him whatsoever.”

“I personally don’t think the editor and chief and all the writers (at the Jefferson Post) have enough intellect to put an accurate sentence together,” said Price.

Mitchell congratulated

Sands congratulated former county manager Dr. Pat Mitchell on her appointment as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Rural Economic Development.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Dr. Mitchell, and I just wish her the very best. She’s a very fine lady, in my opinion. I’ve known and worked…at Duke Power company with our governor and (Secretary of Commerce) Sharon Decker for 20-25 years, and I know they don’t pick losers,” said Sands.

Other business

The board unanimously approved $131,146 in matching grant funds for the Ashe County Transportation Authority’s Rural Operating Assistance fund for fiscal year 2013-14. “You all do a great job,” said Poe.

A late application by Blue Ridge Conservancy for tax exemption on two parcels — one 127 acres, the other 10 acres — slated for preservation on Pond Mountain was unanimously declined by the board. “That’s a lot of property going off the tax books,” said Price.

A late application for tax exemption on two parcels owned by First Baptist Church of West Jefferson was a split decision: a parcel with a storage building used by the church was accepted, while a parcel believed to be leased out by the church was declined.

Judy Bare was appointed to the Ashe County Nursing Home Advisory Committee.

Teresa Patrick was appointed as Ashe Memorial Hospital’s representative to the Volunteer Advisory Board.

Kay Sexton was reappointed to the Region D Development Corporation Board.

Following an executive session on personnel issues, the board unanimously moved to “compensate Dr. Pat Mitchell all benefits she is entitled to through the end of August.”

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