Bell: Pay raises not politically timed

WINNSBORO – Fairfield County leaders are pushing back on criticisms that employee pay raises were strategically timed for political gain in the run-up to the November elections.

Also at a Monday night’s meeting, Council Chairman Moses Bell took a victory lap over wastewater treatment plant funding while debunking what he characterized as inaccurate claims about its cost.

In separate votes, council members approved second reading on ordinances that would appropriate nearly $1 million in general fund money for employee raises, bonuses and new hires. Third reading will likely occur later this month.

The votes passed 6-0. Councilman Neil Robinson was absent.

Monday’s vote comes only a few months after dire budget assessments, which this past spring led to job cuts and resignations. Council members at the time blamed, without presenting documentation, the previous administration for the budget predicament.

Now, with council elections looming in less than four weeks, Fairfield leaders say “discipline” resulted in finding money for raises.

“The money came from a disciplined approach to finance,” Bell said. “That is somewhat different than what had been done in the past.”

Bell rejected the notion that politics influenced when raises were awarded.

“Should we have said that because it’s an election year, that we won’t give a raise?” Bell said. “Nobody would say that. Should we take the heat for doing [what is] right? You all should celebrate this, that we did the right thing when we found out that we could do it.”

County Administrator Malik Whitaker also cited “discipline” in describing how the county found money for raises.

Whitaker said the council initially budgeted $1.4 million from reserves to balance last year’s budget, but said that no longer was necessary “because of the disciplined way we went about this work.”

“Right now things are looking good because of the way we went about [budgeting],” Whitaker added.

Bell’s and Whitaker’s explanations didn’t satisfy critics, who continue to maintain the council majority manufactured a crisis so they could solve it.

“We heard you say time and time again that we don’t have the money,” said Ridgeway resident Randy Bright. “And then, all of a sudden prior to the election, we found the money.”

Bright said there’s more to employee retention than mere money. He reminded council members there’s been no action in weeks on employee surveys the county distributed last summer to gauge employee morale. The responses were received almost three months ago, according to Councilman Clarence Gilbert who has repeatedly asked to see the survey results.

“We fail to hear from citizens. We’ve cut off comments on YouTube,” he said. “We’re paying the price now, scrambling at the end in an election year. Shame on you,” Gilbert said Monday night.

Gilbert also voiced frustration over Whitaker not releasing the employee surveys.

“About a month ago I asked about the employee survey and was told that it was complete, but we haven’t heard anything about that,” Gilbert said. “We need to know the results of this survey. When can we expect it?”

Whitaker was non-committal in his response.

“I’m working with the county attorney on that,” Whitaker said. Critics say Whitaker is withholding the results because they are generally critical of county administration’s leadership.

The first pay-related ordinance includes money for three new jail officers and $1,500 bonuses for newly certified officers.

The second provides $486,535.79 for raises, ranging from 2 to 4 percent, depending on salary. Another $20,000 in bonuses for volunteer firefighters meeting certain criteria was also included. Bell was not clear how those bonuses would work.

Bell raises a stink

Later in the meeting, Bell raised a stink over wastewater treatment plant funding.

Bell pushed back on criticisms that the proposed plant will cost as much as $75 million. He asserted that the true cost will be $18.5 million.

“Where [$75 million] comes from, I don’t know because that’s not the case,” Bell insisted. “It is still believed we can build the wastewater treatment plant for the amount of money that was given to us by Dominion Energy, so we’re working to make sure we get these things done.”

Fairfield County has designated the wastewater plant a top priority as a means to attract large industrial prospects. Bell said misinformation is a deterrent to economic development.

“When people start saying stuff when they don’t have facts to back it up, it puts forth a terrible image,” he said. “People call with questions asking where you get this image and you don’t know where it comes from.”

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