Roy Exum: Longevity? About $1.44 A Week

Monday, August 12, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

A newspaper’s review of Hamilton County government’s finances has just found that in the past five years, automatic salary increases for longevity pay – “a guaranteed structured pay increase based on length of services” – has amounted to $4.6 million in benefits to many of the 1,800 county employees. Put me down as one who thinks that is a nice little perk.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press, in a page one story that pointed out there has just been one across-the board-salary increase between 2010 and 2014, explained that any employee who stays with the county for five years or more, gets an automatic $75 increase in longevity, or loyalty, pay every year. It’s retroactive – one $375 gift after five years and then $75 more for each year of service that follows.

What $75 a year means to a longtime employee is $6.25 more a month – let’s say a cheeseburger at Hardee’s -- and that’s before taxes. Break it down further and that is roughly “a buck-44” each week over the course of a year. Predictably, our County Mayor and Commissioners immediately started dodging media bullets, saying something along the lines of “maybe we ought to look at that.”

In my way of thinking there are far more important matters for our county leaders to worry about. Mayor Jim Coppinger explained to Times Free Press reporter Louis Brogdon that longevity raises have been part of the county’s warp-and-weave for “a long, long time” and while the formula is even spelled out in the employee handbook, that it doesn’t mean it is not worthy of a review. Face it, $4.6 million over five years is still nearly a million dollars a year.

In my opinion, Hamilton County government operates on a pretty lean budget. I don’t know of any city or county that isn’t strapped for cash. The proposed budget that Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke just handed to the City Council is different with his new ideas of running the city, yet it doesn’t appear lavish by any means.

What both the County Commission and the City Council must do is revamp and modernize our political landscape and, as I have begged repeatedly, pursue a metro or home-rule form of government. I don’t care what you call it, but until our city and county combine certain services in a very obvious way to reduce costs, our community will continue to fight financial thirst.

The County Commission forged ahead with its Employee Health Clinic last week – the city already has a beautiful $4.1 million facility – and the question was raised about a possible merger. A county expert said it was not feasible, saying there was too large a difference in what each facility provided. That’s one way to look at it, but a better approach may have been to see how we might eliminate those “differences.”

I promise this is true: When our political leaders dramatically change their stance and search for ways working together will succeed, instead of hiding behind their fears and prejudices in a way that now chokes our nation as well as our cities. Then progress will be inevitable. Simply study the costs, recognize the benefits, and a partnership will produce a win-win result every time.

This I cannot understand -- if types of home rule have been such a Godsend to the operating costs in the metro areas of Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville, why there is such heated resistance between the leaders of Chattanooga and Hamilton County? Check that; I’ve been told there are monumental reasons the two factions will never pound out an alliance, but each disappointing theory makes me want to cry. Our community should buck some disturbing trends and learn to live peacefully with one another as neighbors.

Rather that wallow in the discord a story about a $75 annual “bonus” for longevity creates in the county, or $1.44 per week for those who qualify, we should instead modernize and streamline a public works model that would be more cost efficient, consumer friendly and – get this – will one day even assist smaller municipalities like Signal Mountain, East Ridge and Red Bank After all, those citizens pay county taxes in addition to town taxes. I know the residents of Lookout Mountain, with lofty tax assessments, pay heavy county taxes and, in return, receive very little in county services. It is no secret and is hardly fair.

Let’s shake that tree. While we are at it, let’s take a hard look at what the city and the county do to fund Erlanger and Children’s Hospital. The County Commission allocates $1.5 million while the city now does absolutely nothing. Compared to any other mid-sized metro area in the nation, what is done by the county and city governments in Chattanooga is absolutely shameful.

Our elected officials should address local government’s active participation in public health (our Level 1 trauma center) rather than running from it. The biggest problem is that they have no money to do so. That said, what steps did Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville already make to address the needs those metro areas have today?

Just like the longevity question of $6.25 per employee per month, “maybe we out to take a look at that.”

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