Durham Republican Party Chairman Theodore Hicks called recent pay raises for a top county administrator a "slap in the face of every Durham citizen," because of the poor economy and unemployment in Durham.
In a letter to county commissioners, Hicks, speaking on behalf of the county GOP, took issue with the wage hikes, asking the commissioners, who are all Democrats, to rescind a 10 percent pay increase for County Manager Mike Ruffin.
Ruffin had no comment on the criticism. Durham commissioners stood behind their 4-to-0 decision to boost Ruffin's annual salary from $179,000 to $197,000. (The fifth board member, Commissioner Joe Bowser, was absent for the vote but expressed his support for Ruffin prior to his absence, his colleagues said.)
"I'll see what they have to say," Vice Chairwoman Ellen Reckhow said of the Republican Party's letter. But, she added, "The past three years have been extremely stressful and difficult years for the manager. And he has actually managed the county extremely well in terms of moving us forward at a time when resources were tight, trying to find efficiency in the government. We felt that, as point person for this difficult time, he has led us very well and that he deserved an adjustment."
Since July, the commission has raised the pay for five other top-level managers who report directly to it. The commissioners approved the raises after reviewing a market analysis of prevailing wages for similar positions in about a dozen jurisdictions.
Market-rate adjustments are necessary to keep experienced employees from leaving Durham County for similar positions in other counties with better salaries, Ruffin said last week. All of the county's 1,800 employees will be eligible for merit-based raises when they have their annual reviews between now and June 30, 2012, Ruffin said.
They will also be eligible for market-rate increases in the spring when a broader comparative study, similar to the one completed for top-level positions, is complete, he said. The market-rate increases will theoretically be the same as those for top managers.
The board awarded the raises based on the market analysis and the employees' annual performance evaluations, which all occurred in June, Ruffin said. In Ruffin's case, his performance review and market-rate adjustment happened this month because it was the anniversary of his employment with Durham County, where he became manager in 2000.
The salary increases for top-level administrators all took place on the first day of the fiscal year, July 1, 2011. Among them was a 31 percent salary boost for the commissioners' clerk, awarded after she obtained a two-year professional clerk certification, which she didn't have when she was originally hired.
Employees also became eligible for salary hikes when the new fiscal year began. This year, workers will be eligible to receive a 3.25–4.25-percent merit raise, Ruffin said. Employees will be eligible for those raises after annual performance evaluations, which occur near their anniversary dates.
The salaries of all Durham County employees—including Ruffin and the county commissioners—have been frozen since 2008, Ruffin said. The percentage increase for rank-and-file county employees was a point of attack for Hicks, who pointed out the difference between Ruffin's 10 percent hike and the lower percentages for other employees.
"Neither the peer evaluation data nor the performance evaluation justify a 10% raise," Hicks wrote of Ruffin's salary, "even in a thriving economy."
However, peer evaluation data provided by the county's human resources department showed Ruffin's salary compared with those of managers in similar counties.
According to census figures, Durham County has 267,000 residents. Cumberland County's manager, who has also been in his position since 2000, makes $185,312 in a county with about 35,000 more residents.
Wake County's manager, who has been in his position since 2000, earns $223,000 a year; 940,000 people live in Wake.
Michael Page, chairman of the county commissioners, said Friday that he is comfortable with the board's decision to raise Ruffin's pay.
"I will be more than glad to bring it up with our board," Page said. "But I'm not going back on my vote ... The economy is tough. It's tough for all of us right now, but if we're going to try to keep the manager and maintain the level of services he has initiated, then we had to, at this time, compensate him."
This type of market-rate study was conducted six years ago, Ruffin said. The county was due for a new evaluation in 2008, but Ruffin postponed it when salaries were frozen.
"I had no idea it would be three years," he said of the pay freezes.
The study will be complete in the spring, around budget time, and county leaders will determine which other positions require higher pay.
"Top to bottom, we do our business equitably across the board for everyone," Ruffin said.
Commissioners also approved a 4.25 percent raise for themselves, which took effect in July. The increase was part of the overall county budget. "We treat ourselves like employees," she said. "For the years that no one got a raise, we didn't get a raise."
Page now is eligible to receive $23,282 annually as chairman, up from $22,333 last year, according to a county memo. All other commissioners are eligible to receive $19,777 annually. Bowser is eligible for $9,507 annually. He is ineligible for additional salary because he receives other federal benefits that limit his other income, Reckhow said.