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Judge, magistrates considering raises for hourly workers

The Letcher Fiscal Court has agreed to study the question of whether the county treasury can afford to raise the hourly pay of county workers.

The court agreed to examine the effects of a pay raise near the end of its monthly meeting on Monday night after a request for a raise led to a long and often heated discussion between employee John Lucas and members of the court. Lucas, who said he was representing himself and other county workers, asked the court for a $1 per hour raise. While most court members balked at the $1 raise, some members appeared ready to approve a raise of twentyfi ve cents per hour.

The request by Lucas comes less than a month after the county’s 2010-11 operating budget took effect. Lucas told the court he had purposely waited until the budget had been settled because hourly workers had gotten a similar raise during the administration of Judge/Executive Carroll Smith after that administration’s budget went into effect.

Letcher Judge/Executive Jim Ward told Lucas that this year’s budget is particularly tight and the county has $1.3 million less to work with due to lower revenues from coal severance taxes. Ward said the court managed to preserve a twopercent raise for hourly workers but said that anything else in light of the current economic conditions would cause a deficit which would ultimately result in hourly workers being laid off later in the fiscal year.

Lucas said the cost of living forced hourly employees to request the raise and told the court the two percent raise would amount to the daily cost of a 24-ounce soft drink. He said the 12.5 percent rate increase for Kentucky Power Company that was recently approved by the Kentucky Public Service Commission has created a domino effect that will cause prices to go up across the board.

Lucas referred to the power company as “bloodsuckers,” and said if an additional raise is not approved, the county will soon be seen as a place of last resort for qualified workers to apply for a job.

Lucas complained bitterly that several salaried workers were given raises of $2,000 to $3,000 in the last budget. He also said he had been cautioned against coming to the July meeting to ask for a raise at least four times, which he claimed was an effort to intimidate workers.

Ward replied that the two salaried workers who received raises had also been promoted and had additional responsibilities added to already heavy workloads. He said the raises amounted to a few thousand dollars but that a $1 acrossthe board raise for the county’s hourly workers would add several hundred thousand dollars to an already thin budget.

“The two-percent (raise in the current budget) is costing us $190,000 per year,” said Ward. “We looked at where we were, and we knew we were short from the start by $1.3 million from last year’s allocation. It’s not that we don’t want to give you more, but the money isn’t there.”

“Some salaried people did receive raises,” said Lucas. “I’m not here to down salary, but you have the people who actually get out and do the work. I don’t think you can say we haven’t done the work. Can you help us out with 50 cents per hour?”

District Five Magistrate Wayne Fleming told Lucas that the county’s personnel policy was “messed up.” Fleming said the policy had been implemented to allow newly hired workers to receive larger raises so their pay scale would provide for a living wage, but that it did create lower raises for senior employees. Fleming said he would like to do something to help the hourly workers and asked if they could accept 25 cents per hour now and an additional 25 cents in six months. Lucas said he would accept that. However, Fleming said he wasn’t sure what the raises would add to the county budget because of the overall effect they would have after being run through workers’ compensation, insurance rates and other additional costs that would be reflected in the raise.

“We can’t,” said Magistrate Banks. “Who do you want us to lay off ? Pick them out. Nobody wants to see you make more money any more than I do, but nobody in Kentucky got a raise. Pike County made their workers pay for their own insurance. You’re getting paid and we haven’t had to lay anybody off . We don’t have the money.”

Banks said Knott County has privatized its county workforce and none of the hourly workers in Perry County have received raises. He added that state workers are facing furloughs and that Letcher County is one of the few counties in the region which has been able to provide any raise at all for its workers. Banks said that counting this year’s raise, hourly workers have received 10 percent in raises in the four years the current court has sat, but Lucas once again pointed to the raises for two salaried workers.

“You paid for everybody else,” said Lucas. “How can you feel good about paying salaried employees raises but not us?”

“The numbers don’t add up John,” replied Banks. “What do you want us to stop doing to do this?”

“That’s up to you,” said Lucas. “You want to sacrifice employees’ wages for projects. How can you go on by giving salaried employees raises?”

“They took on more responsibility,” said Banks.

“I have nine jobs,” said Lucas, listing grass cutting, garbage and rodent removal, insect control, and doing electrical work at Fishpond Lake, among other things.

“You cut grass, John,” said Banks.

Magistrate Fleming moved that the court study a 25 centper hour raise for hourly workers and see if it is feasible in light of severance tax projections that will be out later. He also moved that modifications to the current personnel policy be considered and presented to the court within 90 days for a vote. Both motions passed, but Lucas continued to press the court for a raise. District Four Magistrate Keith Adams then moved that the discussion be tabled until the results of the study are available. Adams’s motion also passed, but Lucas continued to talk to the court for some time until he finally agreed to come back for the August meeting to see the results.

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