Columbia County officials are closing in on a goal of saving $1 million in payroll expenses.
Using hiring freezes, department reorganizations and replacing former employees with new workers at lower salaries, the county already has saved more than $923,000 with three months remaining in the fiscal year. And that figure doesn't include savings produced by the sheriff's office, the county government's largest employer, even though the sheriff added employees this year.
During the past two fiscal years, departments under the purview of the board of commissioners have eliminated a total of seven positions to save almost $665,000.
However, departments run by elected officials -- tax commissioner, magistrate court, superior court, clerk of court and sheriff's office -- have added 16 positions while eliminating none during that same time frame. Those new positions have added more than $611,000 in payroll.
Still, the county is managing to save.
"When you have turnover in a department, you may have a 35-day hiring delay," explained Deputy Administrator Scott Johnson. "You may have somebody come in at a cheaper salary. There are lots of ways to save."
Hiring someone for less than his predecessor was making seems a popular option. For example, the county Tax Assessor's Office has filled 13 positions while eliminating none, yet is showing more than $25,000 in payroll savings, according to county records.
County employees are paid on a grade scale ranging from four to 30. Those on the lower end of the scale make the least money. Those in upper management positions are included near the top of the pay scale, said county Finance Director Leanne DeLoach.
Division directors such as DeLoach are contracted employees not included in the pay scale.
"Usually, when someone leaves, they've been here for a few years, so they've received merit (raises) each year," DeLoach said. "They're usually above the minimum, and in some cases well above the minimum.
"When we replace that job, we replace it at the minimum. That's how we achieve savings."
Many departments show jobs as "pending" on county documents. The engineering department currently has four pending jobs and has managed to save nearly $90,000 this year in salary. In all, 12 county departments or offices show at least one job as pending.
"I really think we are doing our very best to run government like a business," Johnson said. "This is done in the business world all the time, but not in the government sector."
Payroll savings likely are even more than what is included in the county's calculations, Johnson said.
Those figures do not include the sheriff's office.
Including the 911 and detention centers, the sheriff's office employs nearly 360 workers, more than any other constitutional office or county department. Consequently, it has the highest turnover rate, with 47 vacancies in 2009 alone.
That complexity made payroll figures too difficult to track. Thus, its salaries were not included in reports concerning payroll savings, Johnson said.
But according to records obtained by The News-Times , 10 new positions have been created at the sheriff's office since 2008 at a payroll cost of more than $400,000. None of those positions have been eliminated.
Last fiscal year, the sheriff's office exceeded its payroll budget of about $10.8 million by nearly $75,000.
However, the Columbia County Detention Center shaved its $5.9 million payroll budget by more than $277,000, for a net savings of more than $200,000.
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