Marion County workers just got good news on the financial front.
On Tuesday, the County Commission shuffled their budget enough to provide an extra 1 percent raise to county employees. The raises apply to workers under the County Commission, as well as those employed by the Sheriff, Clerk of Courts, Tax Collector, Supervisor of Elections and Property Appraiser.
The raises will take effect soon. Commissioners first must approve resolutions moving funding into appropriate accounts – that is, except for employees under Property Appraiser Villie Smith. The funding for them will be held in reserve until a later date.
As commissioners headed into budget hearings in July, a proposal was floated to give most employees a 3 percent raise for 2021. The exceptions were Sheriff Billy Woods, who sought only a 1 percent boost for his staffers, and Smith, who did not request raises.
Those potential increases were pared back, however, as the County Commission moved to hold steady the county’s main property tax rate. Consequently, raises were capped at 1 percent for everyone. Commissioners approved money for Smith’s office, but that, too, has been held in reserve until later.
While county employees didn’t get what they hoped for initially, officials still found a way to provide raises.
The county was planning a five-year, $3.5 million upgrade to the audio/video equipment at the courthouse. To get that started, the board added $876,276 to the 2021 budget.
The commission will instead use funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, a $2-plus trillion COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress and enacted by President Trump.
Under the law, Marion County was allotted $64 million. The County Commission immediately received $15.9 million of that. Following Gov. Ron DeSantis’s recent announcement of a second phase, the county will soon receive another $12.8 million, according to state officials.
County Courts Administrator Jon Lin justified the technology upgrade as a CARES project in a recent memo.
“The current courtrooms lack the ability to properly address social distancing requirements and due process rights of court litigants,” Lin wrote. “The proposed courtroom upgrades provide support for remote appearances as well as provide other enhancements to court operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
With those other enhancements, Lin added, multiple participants could simultaneously appear remotely for court. Interpreters would be able to maintain social distancing practices. The new equipment also eases the practice of maintaining shared equipment and surfaces, such as podiums.
Moreover, the improvements will permit lawyers to present evidence from their counsel tables and offer the public better visibility from the gallery.
“These are all critical components to the continued operations and efficiency of the Court as we navigate the current and future stages of pandemic operations,” Lin noted.
In a separate memo to the County Commission, County Administrator Mounir Bouyounes explained that utilizing CARES funding accelerates the timing of the project. Instead of five years, it can now be completed within the next three months.
On Tuesday, he also told the board that paying for the raises would run roughly $575,000, meaning the commission could bank the remaining $301,000 for the fiscal year.
“I’m of the opinion that we go ahead and put that (money) back into our employees,” commission Chairwoman Kathy Bryant said during the discussion of the plan. “This is considerable savings, and we know we’re going to have that.”