More than 1,800 Brevard County government employees will be getting 2.38% pay raises, under a plan unanimously approved by county commissioners at their budget hearing Tuesday night.
The pay raises weren't on the meeting agenda. But Commissioner John Tobia brought up the issue during discussion of the budget plan for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
Tobia noted that the equivalent of a 2.38% raise will take effect in October for 496 unionized Brevard County Fire Rescue firefighters, under a contract proposal commissioners approved in July by a 4-1 vote, with Tobia opposed. Tobia said the county should give the same raise to its other employees.
Brevard County Human Resources Director Jerry Visco said the County Commission's action will affect 1,224 nonunion county employees, as well as 622 county employees who are members of the Laborers International Union. Visco said the LIU members generally are "blue-collar workers" who work is such county departments as natural resources, parks and recreation, public works, solid waste, Space Coast Area Transit and utility services.
Visco said commissioners will need to have a second vote to decide when the raises will take effect.
Brevard County Budget Director Jill Hayes said the budget plan proposed by County Manager Frank Abbate included 2% cost-of-living raises for county workers, but did not set a timetable for implementing them, because county officials wanted to further determine the impact of the cononavirus pandemic on revenue.
Abbate said the 2.38% raises commissioners approved Tuesday would not have an impact on the $1.49 billion county budget for 2020-21, on property tax rates or on the level of service to residents.
Abbate said the cost of the raises will be covered by leaving currently vacant positions open, as well as by sales tax revenue that was higher than was anticipated when he and his staff first developed the budget in May.
County Commission Vice Chair Rita Pritchett initially was hesitant about supporting Tobia's plan, until receiving assurances from Abbate that the raises could be accommodated within the budget constraints.
County Commission Chair Bryan Lober had suggested offering raises only to employees who were paid less than $50,000 or $60,000 a year. But he voted with the other commissioners to approve the raises for all employees, including those with six-figure annual salaries.
The average household income in Brevard is $54,349, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Commissioner Kristine Isnardi said she didn't want to penalize employees who make more money by excluding them from the pay raise proposal.
"I think everybody deserves it equally across the board," Isnardi said.
Commissioner Curt Smith said he was "enchanted" with Tobia's proposal, although he would have liked another week to research the financial implications before voting on it.
In suggesting across-the-board 2.38% raises, Tobia said: "All I'm asking is that we treat people" who are employed by the county "no better or no worse" than the unionized firefighters.
Tobia also called the firefighters' union, the International Association of Fire Fighters, a "liberal" labor union.
"It is clear this board has an unjustifiable affinity for liberal labor unions," Tobia said, in addressing the all-Republican County Commission. "Quite the opposite, I have a grounded appreciation for the county employees that decide to let their work ethic and dedication dictate their compensation, not a union card."
The International Association of Fire Fighters last year endorsed Joe Biden for president. President Donald Trump subsequently lashed out at the union in tweets that Tobia read during Tuesday's meeting.
Lober saw the County Commission's approval of the firefighters' union contract differently, saying commissioners were "prioritizing public safety," rather than supporting a liberal labor union.
"I'd rather just make sure that our employees are treated right, irrespective of whether they are unionized," Lober said.
The County Commission's action will not affect commissioners' own salaries, which are set by ordinance.
During debate on his proposal, Tobia noted that county commissioners on Aug. 25 approved allocating $500,000 from the county's reserves to the Brevard County clerk of courts office. The money helps fill a budget gap caused by the coronavirus-related shutdown of many court operations since mid-March.
It enabled Clerk of Courts Scott Ellis to return to the payroll 60 employees who have been on unpaid furlough, and restore the pay and hours for his other 180 employees whose salaries or hours were reduced by 20%. Those cuts took effect Aug. 10.
Much of Ellis' budget is funded by various court fees, through a state allocation. Ellis said his allocation from the state was cut by about $1.5 million for the last three months of the current budget year that ends Sept. 30, reducing his annual allocation for fiscal 2019-20 from the state to about $10 million.
Tobia said commissioners took that action, even though the affected workers are not under the County Commission's purview, but rather work for Scott, an independent constitutional officer.
The County Commission voted 3-1 in favor of allocating the $500,000 to the clerk of courts office. Isnardi, Pritchett and Smith voted yes. Tobia voted no. Lober abstained from voting because his wife is an attorney in the clerk of courts office.
Preliminary budget approval
On Tuesday, commissioners voted unanimously to give preliminary approval to the proposed aggregate tax rate of $5.6404 per $1,000 of taxable value for 2020-21, which is down from $5.8447 per $1,000 in the current budget year. This rate represents an average for all operational tax rates.
For owners of homesteaded property with a taxable value of $200,000, this would equate to a decrease of an average of $40.84 on their Brevard County tax bills, Abbate said in his budget message. Changes in individual tax bills would vary, based in part on changes in the value of the property.
A final vote on the budget and tax rates will occur during the County Commission's second budget hearing on Sept. 22.
The county's proposed $1.49 billion budget for 2020-21 is down from the current amended budget of $1.57 billion for 2019-20, but up from the original 2019-20 budget of $1.33 billion that was approved in September 2019.