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Brevard County board backs employee pay raise with COVID funds from Lober’s vacant seat

The vacancy on the Brevard County Board left by former Commissioner Bryan Lober has provided the Commission with leftover COVID-19 relief funds that one commissioner has found a use for — to use for raises for county employees.

Board members approved a proposal from Commissioner John Tobia for a cost-of-living adjustment for county employees of $1 per hour or 5.38%, whichever is greater.

The goal is to offer a more competitive wage for current and future employees. This will hopefully enhance recruitment and retention efforts as well as offset the impact of inflation.

“According to CareerSource Brevard, the Brevard unemployment rate is at an all-time low of 2.5%, yet as of March 31 the county has 433 vacancies,” Tobia said. “Quite simply, we need competitive wages to keep and recruit employees. Current employees are already struggling.”  

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This percent increase is the same as the cost-of-living adjustment approved by the Florida legislature, and Tobia wants to provide the same benefit to county staff.

Increasing salaries will have a fiscal impact of almost $518,000, and Tobia, long staking his claim as a fiscal conservative, has a plan for defraying much of the cost without “raising taxes or cutting service levels” — through a windfall received because of a resignation.

“We have the ability to reallocate District 2 CARES Act funding in a total of $481,000,” Tobia said.

That funding is available because Lober resigned as the District 2 commissioner April 1, attributing his decision to the recent passing of his grandmother.

But Lober left under the shadow of an audit of all commissioners’ use of their county-issued purchasing cards.

Lober, who denies doing anything illegal, spent nearly $40,000 on his purchase card, which was nearly three times more than his colleagues combined. To pay for the items, Lober used a portion of the $5 million he was allocated from federal stimulus money meant to assist those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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© ERIC ROGERS/FLORIDA TODAY Bryan Lober’s photo and nameplate have been removed from this display of photos of Brevard County commissioners in the lobby of the Brevard County Government Center in Viera.

But Lober resigned before the ongoing budget was completed, leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars of his stimulus money unspent. 

With his seat now vacant, that money becomes available for Tobia to target.

But not everybody thinks using funds meant to help people impacted by the pandemic for county raises is a good idea.

“I think as leaders of the county, we should base our agenda on the needs of the people,” said Lorenzo Laws, one of the founders of the Brevard Justice Ministry. “And the needs of the people is housing. The needs of the people need to be taken care of. The needs of the people are important, and the needs of the people should come first.”  

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Moreover, others have pointed out that reallocating that pool of money, even in full, amounts to only a portion of the necessary funding.

© PROVIDED PHOTO Brevard County Commissioner Bryan Lober

“That CARES money is an interesting question,” said Rick Heffelfinger during public comment. “That is only a band aid. That is going to have long term effects. I don’t know if that has been done.”The county needs roughly double that amount to fully fund the proposal.

The rest will come from enterprise and social revenue funds such as municipal service taxing units or MSTUs, which are special taxing districts that funds additional services.

In reality, the reallocation, along with the other sources, provides for enough funding to last for one year. In subsequent years, there will be additional money needed because it becomes a recurring expense.

To fund future increases, the money will be redirected from savings because of existing vacancies to salaries of those working with the county. He will also tap into revenues from new construction, which will be between $3 million and $5 million annually.  

County Manager Frank Abbate, along with county staff, now assume responsibility for the proposal. Tobia allowed them discretion for working through the budget to meet the commissioner’s approved request.

“We have a lot of positions in the county that are between 20%, 25% and 67%,” Abbate said of the vacancy rates. “That is not sustainable with the service level we are providing. Some of them are in rather critical areas. For example, solid waste is having that problem.”

It becomes a focal point as staff begin working on the following year’s budget and the recommendations they will make to commissioners in terms of salaries.

Commissioners supported Tobia’s proposal unanimously, realizing it needed to be approved to even begin addressing their concerns related to recruitment and retention.

© TIM SHORTT/FLORIDA TODAY Brevard County Parks & Recreation maintenance technician Todd Sharpe replacing a defective sprinkler head at a ball field at the athletic complex near Suntree Elementary.

There are increasing, upward cost pressures in the current market environment, not only because of inflation, but also with the minimum wage requirements imposed by the state.

“Does this mean that costs are going to go up in the future, absolutely,” Commissioner Rita Pritchett said. “They are going to continue to go up for a long period of time until a recession hits, or the number for interest rates go up, and then prices will adjust. Just time to save your money and work hard guys.”

This article originally appeared on Florida Today

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