China Grove weighs need for employee pay raise

Published 12:10 am Tuesday, May 9, 2023

CHINA GROVE — China Grove officials are preparing to finalize the upcoming budget, but a proposed cost-of-living-adjustment for town employees caused discussions to hit a snag during the latest meeting. 

Those favoring a 7% raise argued that it was necessary to remain competitive in the job market. 

“If we don’t keep up and we start losing fire, public works and policemen, what are we going to do?” Council member Don Bringle asked at the May 2 regularly scheduled China Grove Town Council meeting. “Those people are where the tire meets the road. We have to stay current with what our competitors are doing. When you lose an employee, most of ours have been here five plus years, and then you hire someone (new), you don’t know if they will even show up.”

Bringle referred back to a time when China Grove was a “training ground” for other municipalities. After employees came to China Grove and received training, they would bolt to greener pastures. Preventing that from happening is behind Bringle’s support for the raise.

“I am all for doing what we need to do to keep our employees,” Bringle said. “We have to maintain the morale … for us to sit here and say we are going to cut their salary. How do you think they feel about us when they are devoted to this town?” 

Council member Cheryl Sheets represented the lone voice against the raise in its current form. Sheets argued that it was not a matter of supporting the employees but instead that the raise represented too significant of an uptick for the town’s budget without other spending cuts to offset it.

“I fully support our public employees and voted to add three firefighters, adjust current firefighter salaries, add a police officer, and adjust admin salaries,” Sheets said in an email. “China Grove would not be the great community it is without our employees. They are our greatest asset and investment. However, I am concerned when council votes to add $462,765 in additional wages and benefits to a total proposed $5,609,950 budget. Total wages and benefits are budgeted at $3,267,500. This means that 58% of China Grove’s budget is salaries and benefits.”

Finding the dollars and cents to make the raise work troubled Sheets. 

“The proposed budget will reduce taxes from 56 cents to 50 (cents per $100 valuation), but due to the property revaluation/tax increase, inflation and state of the economy, some of our community will still be negatively impacted,” Sheets said in her email. “I’ve already been told by families that they are making cuts in their family budget in order to buy groceries.”

During the meeting, Sheets remarked that she was elected to represent the taxpaying citizens of China Grove. 

“They are the ones who vote,” Sheets said. “When they vote, I think we need to be mindful because we are put in this position as a voice for the people, not a voice for the employees.”

China Grove Town Manager Ken Deal refuted that concern at the meeting. 

“I have been here 13 years and have never had anyone come to me and say that we are paying our employees too much,” Deal said. 

The raises would impact employees in each of China Grove’s departments. To explain how those costs add up, members of the surrounding law enforcement communities weighed in.

Spencer Police Chief Michael File indicated that although recruits receive free tuition for basic law enforcement training, the department is still on the hook for books and uniforms.

“When we calculate the cost to send an officer through training, we calculate the hourly rate we pay them plus benefits, books, uniforms, and then the field training they receive by the agency when they come back,” File said. 

Chief Deputy Jason Owens of the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office explained how those costs could quickly escalate when it comes to training an officer. 

Between basic law enforcement training and field training, there are a lot of costs associated with bringing on a recruit. Several costs can roll over from previous recruits, but many are sunk on individualized hires, such as uniforms. 

Owens indicated that the salaries and benefits of a recruit cost approximately $75,000 for the first year. Much of that first year is spent between the academy and on-job training.

“It’s more about the time invested than the money,” Owens said. 

Field training involves another deputy, who is on the clock in addition to the recruit. The dollars start to add up quickly. If that recruit bolts for another department or a job in the private sector, that money is, in essence, sunk. 

China Grove will have a public hearing on June 6 at 6 p.m. in Town Hall before finalizing the budget.