The following column is an opinion piece and reflects the views of only the author and not those of TheGeorgiaVirtue.com
At Tuesday’s county commission meeting, a 4-3 vote by our elected officials kicked the proverbial can on employee retirement down the road once again. This time, the delay came with a promise to vote at the next evening county commission meeting (November 1) so ‘more employees could be present’ if they wanted to be, while simultaneously announcing that there would be no additional discussion about it.
What that said to me as a member of the media and a taxpayer is that there will be discussion, just not in front of us. If there’s no need to discuss it, there is no need to delay it. But alas, here we are. Once again telling our county employees that we’ll get to them in a minute.
It’s a precarious situation in which I’ve found myself – advocating for government employees. I’m a ‘small L’ libertarian, I spend my days criticizing local governments, and, like almost everyone else, I hate property taxes. I can grumble with the best of them…about how I pay school taxes but don’t have kids, about how ‘we just saw an increase last year,’ and, of course, ‘if they’re not going to maintain this road and that ditch, I should get a refund.’
But I’m also from Atlanta and know how much worse (and expensive!) it could be. I like to say I was granted asylum down here and am now blessed to enjoy the perks of living in a small community where, though they do exist, the issues are on a relatively small scale. The cost of living is low, the quality of life is high, and the services provided, for all intents and purposes, match what’s on the tax bill.
My decision to buy a house in Bulloch County is not one I took lightly, especially knowing how so many other places govern to assess more and provide less. But here, I love that when I have a question, I can call a county office and speak to someone who is 1) willing to take the call and 2) knowledgeable on the subject matter. If I call back a second time, the likelihood of talking to the same person again is almost 100%. It was a relief, when I had to call 911, that familiar faces showed up to my home. And when something doesn’t go quite right, the answer isn’t ‘I don’t know what to tell ya’ because they actually do know the answer, they know how to do their job, and they want to provide a high level of service.
All of these things come at a price and the truth is, when it comes to human capital, we’ve all been getting much more than we pay for. It’s why, like so many others in the community, I compliment our employees for the job they do whenever the opportunity presents itself. It’s why it’s a loss for the community when a ‘contact’ moves on to greener pastures. And it’s one of the reasons I support a better retirement plan for the employees who make this county go ‘round.
Our county commissioners have yet to vote on this issue, which has long been looming, and have really shown no desire to do anything but maintain the terrible status quo.
On Tuesday, after employees once again provided data from the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, it was asked if any commissioners had any questions. Despite saying they weren’t ready to vote before the presentation, Commissioners Mosley, Simmons, and Gibson had no questions and no comments.
Chairman Roy Thompson had questions, however, which he said were on behalf of the 79,000-81,000 citizens of Bulloch County. He said “that’s who we have to please, not 201 and 83 or 86 employees.” And to that I would say not one of those 71,000 to 81,000 will be very happy if the levels of service continue to decline because of a lack of employees. And neither will the ~300 employees, most of whom are also Bulloch County citizens.
Unfortunately, much of the time in these retirement plan workshops over the last year has been spent talking about what self-employed commissioners do and how, well into their 70s, they’re glad to still be working. I think that’s fantastic, but it’s not for everyone and it’s not for county employees.
We have employees who have worked for the county for 40+ years and are only working because the retirement plans from the current structure are unpredictable. They don’t know how much they’ll get on a monthly basis, how long it will last, and if it’ll all be gone in a stock market plummet.
Employing them is not only, in some instances, a risk, it’s also costly to the health benefits plan and the pay scale. In a tangential expense, it costs taxpayers more for recruitment because the county spends a lot of time searching for new people. When employees near the bottom of the totem pole don’t have a ton of upward ascension opportunities, they leave…after we have trained them and invested in them, of course.
The issue is cyclical and perpetual because when people can’t afford to retire, there is no turnover.
And if your answer is ‘Well, they should simply plan better and put more of their salaries away for retirement,’ nice try. But they can’t. Our starting deputy pay is in the ballpark of $5.00 less PER HOUR than some of our neighboring counties and agencies. (That’s on commissioners, not the Sheriff, by the way.) We have a plethora of minimum wage-level jobs in the county and pay studies show we are pretty great at paying less than other public sector agencies and the private sectors.
But other surveys show people are willing to earn a little less for a higher return on the backend – like great health insurance benefits and a predictable, sustainable retirement package. Bulloch County offers neither.
What’s baffling, though, is that the math supports offering our employees more. Right now, based on what the county budgets for retirement matching, a conversion to a pension saves taxpayers some $280,000. Every month the commissioners put this off, the savings from the switchover lessens, as do the retirement portfolios of the county employees. They’re quite literally traveling back in time and moving further away from retirement under the plans the county is offering today. Get cyclical with this column and go back to the part about no turnover because people can’t afford to retire.
Bulloch County isn’t competitive in what it offers employees and it’s costing us tremendously.
Commissioners need to stop looking at retirement plans for employees as some extra privilege and gift and instead look at it as a cost of doing business as a county and doing it with qualified and loyal employees who are willing to invest in their jobs and in this community.
It might be expensive, but it doesn’t come with a tax increase. Not right now and not next year. That’s more than they can say about many other things.
Several commissioners harp on what will happen in several years and while that’s important, a lack of knowledge about what is for certain about the next five or ten years cannot be the sole determiner. Nothing is for certain and budgets have always been subject to the ebbs and flows of the economy. What doesn’t ebb and flow is the need for employees.
It is embarrassing that it has taken this long to get here. Employees asked for the committee a decade ago and nothing was done. There’s a record of the request and there’s a record that commissioners did the bare minimum to explore the options.
Giving commissioners a full pass on having to do any of the work, employees finally were given the opportunity in 2021 to do all of the due diligence on possible alternatives. They did so in a partnership with the entity that governs county commissioners in Georgia.
Still, commissioners won’t act. Why?