Employee pay is a complicated and sensitive matter for the Russell County government.
That became clear in the last two weeks after the county released the names, job titles and annual salaries of its nearly 300 employees. The information was requested under Alabama's Open Records laws by the Ledger-Enquirer. The paper has routinely requested the information from Phenix City and Columbus governments, but this was the first time the request had been made to Russell County officials.
The top-paid employee in Russell County is Engineer Larry Kite, who makes an annual salary of $130,847. The state of Alabama pays 70 percent of the county engineer's salary.
Two of the four highest paid county employees are elected officials.
Probate Judge Alford Harden makes $92,550, making him the second highest paid person on the county payroll. Sheriff Heath Taylor, who is also elected, is third with an annual salary of $90,000. County Administrator LeAnn Horne is fourth with an annual salary of $85,664, followed by Assistant County Engineer Michael Blakeney with $81,885, of which the state pays half.
One of the issues that emerges in a look at Russell County pay is with the Sheriff's Office, which employs about 130 people -- a combination of sworn deputies, correctional officers and administrative personnel.
The office has deputies with five years experience making basically the same thing -- about $30,000 a year -- as recently hired deputies, Sheriff Heath Taylor pointed out.
Dr. James Buford of Ellis-Harper Management in Auburn, Ala., is conducting a pay study for the Sheriff's Office, Taylor said.
"We want to see where we have deficiencies and attempt to right the ship if possible," Taylor said last week. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see if I am hiring rookie deputies and a deputy who has been here five years is making the same thing, that it isn't right."
One of the reasons for the issue, according to county officials, is the annual 3 percent cost of living raise all county employees receive. That practice goes back about 15 years, said Commissioner Gentry Lee.
The cost of living increase escalated the entry-level Sheriff's Office salary by 3 percent each year, Taylor said.
"That has created the problem where the 5-year employee is making the same thing as the rookie," Taylor said.
Taylor and Commissioner Chance Corbett agree that raises should be given on merit and not across the board.
"Give me a sum of money and let me decide how much each employee gets," Taylor said. "... Some will get 5 percent and some may get zero. That is the only fair way to divvy out raises."
Corbett agrees and has been pushing pay-for-performace and work-quality evaluations for the last two years.
"It is done in other cities, counties and businesses," Corbett said. "This rewards employees for doing a good job and giving above and beyond the requirements while not rewarding employees who are not doing the job to the expectations or meeting their goals. This allows the county to maximize the payroll and retain the strongest employees."
Lee, one of the veterans on the commission, said that has been tried before.
"We did that awhile with Probate Judge Al Howard," Lee said. "We calculated what it would be and gave it to the judge. It turned into a big mess. I think we ended up giving everybody raises anyway. In theory, yeah, it works."
The discussion of county employee pay comes at a sensitive time for the county, which is one of the few local governmental agencies to continue regular cost of living adjustments in the wake of the 2008 economic downturn. There are Phenix City annexation moves in Ladonia that could pull additional sales tax revenue from the county, which operates on a roughly $15 million annual budget.
"The problem is when you start looking at pay problems, you see the shortfalls," said Commissioner Tillman Pugh. "Then the problem is do you have the money to correct it? If you expose the problem, you better fix it."
Horne, the county administrator, did not respond to interview requests.
County officials delayed the release of the individual pay information.
The newspaper's original request to the county administrator's office for the information was made on Feb. 27. The administrator's office initially only released the information on 11 elected officials, including all seven commissioners, probate judge, revenue commissioner, sheriff and coroner. On March 13, job titles and salaries were released, but not the names of the employees who held those jobs, as required under Alabama's Open Records Act.
The Ledger-Enquirer hired attorney Dennis Bailey with the Montgomery, Ala., firm of Rushton, Stakely, Johnston & Garrett to pursue the information. Subsequently, the County Commission voted twice on the release of the records. The commission voted unanimously March 25 to release county employee information to include names and salary.
It voted unanimously again on April 8 to waive the costs associated with compiling an open records request from the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. The information was released later that day.