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February 13, 2014

Hamilton County Library employees unlikely to see pay increase

Betty Lawrence speaks to HamCo commissioners

Jasper — Suwannee River Regional Library Director Betty Lawrence was on hand at the Feb. 4 meeting of the Hamilton County Board of County Commissioners to give an update. The main issue discussed was wage increases for library employees, which has caused some controversy in the past because Hamilton County gave their library employees an $800 bonus in 2012 after learning that the library system wasn’t going to issue raises for any of their employees.

Lawrence gave each member of the board a handbook that explains how the regional library system works. Employees at the three public libraries in Hamilton County fall under the jurisdiction of the administrative (largest) county of the interlocal agreement, which is Suwannee County.

The handbook, she said, is one she made for the members of the library committee. County Coordinator Louie Goodin and Commissioner Buster Oxendine currently represent Hamilton County on the Suwannee River Regional Library committee. Lawrence said the first meeting of the committee will be set for no later than April 1.

She explained that many of the commissioners in the three counties of Suwannee, Hamilton and Madison, especially some of the newer ones, don’t have a full understanding of the interlocal agreement or state aid funding for the libraries. The original contract, she said, was developed in 1995 and has had just a few updates since then. The library committee, she said, will be reviewing the contract and then will report back to their respective county commissioners to determine how they want the contract to read going forward.

“It seems that it has served you well,” Lawrence said of the current contract. “The only issue that I’ve seen that needed to be addressed has to do with salaries,” she said.

Lawrence said she needed to clear up a misconception. The salary range, she said, is the same for all three counties.

“We’re talking about trying to get raises for employees, not necessarily equalizing things,” she explained.

The only way an employee can have a higher salary than their coworkers, Lawrence said, is if they bring with them additional years of experience or an educational component when they first hire on.

Lawrence said the library system receives three different grants; equalization, operating, and a multi-county grant.

“I want to be very careful that we don’t break any of the rules or policies because I don’t want any of that money to end up going away,” Lawrence said.

She explained that she is still working with Suwannee County commissioners to try to get wage increases for library employees, but since Suwannee did not give their county employees raises this year, it might not pan out.

Lawrence said she appreciated what the Hamilton County commissioners did when they gave the bonus money to their library’s employees last year, but she said this year she wants it to be a salary increase.

“We did not break any rules,” she said. “The accounting system was not compromised, but you want a raise. I want a raise for all of our employees. In order to do that, there is a particular protocol that I have to follow.”

She said Hamilton County has enough in the budget to give library employees a two percent raise. Since it has been four years since library employees have received a raise, Lawrence said the budgets can bear a five percent increase. The extra three percent, she said, will come from state operating funds.

Lawrence clarified that she is not asking the Suwannee County commissioners for additional funds to give her employees raises.

“I’m asking for permission,” she said.

Once the library committee meets and if they agree on a new contract, they will present it to the Suwannee County commissioners and will have more leverage than just Lawrence asking for the raises, she explained.

There was much confusion from the board members about the entire scenario because budgets were finalized last October, so it didn’t seem likely that Suwannee County would come back and make changes in order to approve pay raises. Lawrence tried explaining that there are line items in each department’s budgets that could be changed in order to allow for pay raises. Suwannee County, she said, is still discussing the possibility of giving raises across the board to all employees.

“Suwannee County is not going to go back and give raises for this year,” said Oxendine. “That’s just my opinion. If they were going to give a raise, they’d have gave a raise.”

Commissioner Randy Ogburn’s opinion was that a lot of this controversy was because the former director, Danny Hales, failed to have library board meetings.  

Ogburn told Lawrence, “I think that if there’s money that’s built into state aid and you’ve got it built into your budget, I think that whether Suwannee County chooses to give raises or not, this is a three-party contract and if you build it into your budget, the county ought to allow you to give library employees raises.”

Lawrence ended by saying there are longevity raises built into the agreement that occur every five years, and she concluded by saying she was still working on the pay raise issue.

“I’m trying to do it within the agreement and the state guidelines,” said Lawrence.

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