The Bible says everyone should help out their fellow human beings, however, at a Thursday, August 16 Guilford County Board of Commissioners work session, the county commissioners made it crystal clear to staff that they didn’t see any reason county taxpayers should foot the bill for doing so.
At the meeting, a plan from county staff that would pay county employees to do charitable work in the community ran into a buzz saw wielded by the commissioners from both parties.
The plan, which was presented by Guilford County Human Resources Director Karen Fishel, and backed by Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing, called for Guilford County to institute a new policy allowing county employees two days of paid leave each year to volunteer with charitable organizations, schools or other community groups.
The item was scheduled for discussion at the board’s August 16 afternoon work session and had been placed on the agenda for adoption at the commissioners’ evening meeting that followed immediately after the work session.
However, as soon as the idea was presented to the board, both Democratic and Republican commissioners had plenty of questions and objections. Not only did the board not adopt the plan that day – they came very close to voting it down outright.
In her presentation to the board, Fishel said this practice is in effect in some counties in the state. Fishel said Henderson, Rockingham, Durham, New Hanover, Wake and Mecklenburg counties have versions of the program and she added that the State of North Carolina also allows employees 24 hours –three work days – of paid community service each year.
She said others do not offer it.
“We have some counties that don’t do it at all,” she said, noting that Alamance County and Forsyth County do not.
She added that the City of Greensboro doesn’t have any such program.
The proposal states that this type of plan shows that Guilford County government recognizes the need for volunteers to support schools, hospitals, the community and area nonprofits and, toward that end, county employees would be granted 16 hours, two days out of each year, for community service. For those days, they would be paid by the county to volunteer in schools or with a variety of community causes.
Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Alan Branson said the day after the discussion that, when the item was presented for inclusion of the agenda for the board’s August 16 evening meeting, he didn’t realize it would be as controversial as it was.
“I didn’t think it would be as much a question or create as much of an uproar as we made it out to be,” Branson said.
Fishel told the board that statistics show that charity and service are important to workers entering the workforce today, and she added that the program would build comradery and increase employee loyalty.
Fishel said the plan would have “no cost” to the county; however, the commissioners pushed back hard on that claim.
Commissioner Carolyn Coleman said it would in fact cost the county something and she asked if staff had done any calculations of those costs.
“Well, so it should be no additional cost per budget,” Fishel replied.
Coleman pressed her point. The county would be paying employees not to come to work – that came at a cost, she argued.
“No I have not calculated that cost,” Fishel said.
Commissioner Skip Alston said Guilford County currently has about 2,500 employees, so, “in a worst-case scenario” – where every employee chose to take advantage of the program – the cost would be 2,500 times the average hourly salary for 16 hours per employee.
“Therein lies your cost,” Alston said.
After some back and forth, and attempted rough estimates by commissioners, Guilford County Budget Director Mike Halford jumped in and said the cost in terms of employee time would max out at approximately $1 million.
Lawing said it was more of “lost work time” or a “time away from work” cost.
Alston pressed, “It would still be a cost.”
Commissioner Justin Conrad said he was concerned the program could negatively affect county operations.
“The Wyndham is a very big volunteer opportunity,” Conrad said of the golf tournament that had begun that morning. “Well, imagine if we have a substantial amount of people who said, ‘Hey, that might be something I’d be interested in doing.’”
Conrad added that he ran the golf tournament in 2005 and so he knows the importance of volunteers for the Wyndham and he appreciates what they bring to it. But he added that with an event such as the tournament, many county employees could be there at one time. He said that departments, especially the Sheriff’s Department or Emergency Services, may “lose our ability to react to a situation.”
“I really have some pause,” Conrad said.
Fishel responded that all leave of this sort would have supervisor approval and that safeguard would limit the program from being a major draw from one department at any one time.
Commissioner Alan Perdue, who served as the county’s Emergency Services director before becoming a commissioner, said it would certainly have an effect on some county departments.
“Take EMS and the Sheriff’s Department,” he said. “There is a cost. You have to backfill every person who is off because you can’t go beneath minimum staff for whatever – be it EMS or the jail. So there is a direct cost and an indirect cost associated with it, and I think that needs to be looked at.”
Coleman had another concern: She said the program could be implemented unfairly since some department directors might approve it for their employees while others might not.
Commissioner Kay Cashion said that two full days of paid volunteer work seemed like a lot to grant. She also said that the whole thing about volunteering in the community is that it is volunteer work – that is, you don’t get paid for it. She said that, at certain times in her life when she was employed by others and there was a cause that meant a lot to her, she would use her vacation time to help out.
Alston agreed with Cashion.
“Really, to me, it’s not really volunteering if you are getting paid to do it,” he said.
Commissioner Jeff Phillips said it was a “respectful idea” but he added that he had questions about cost and had other concerns.
Lawing said the proposal had been presented at a department directors meeting and, at that meeting, every director who spoke on it was for it and none spoke against. Lawing said that he did think it might help with recruiting new county employees. The county manager also said he didn’t know how many employees would want to participate.
He said the idea appealed to staff, but if it wasn’t the will of the commissioners to pursue the plan, then so be it. He pointed out that Guilford County has never had such a plan before.
The commissioners voted to pull the item from the agenda of the August 16 meeting to collect more information about it and its costs, though the discussion at the meeting didn’t seem promising for the proposal.