This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

Town of Sawmills employees may get raises based on their performance this year – or get no raises for the same reason.

The town is considering pay increases that are entirely merit-based, a switch from a system that included an automatic cost-of-living adjustment for everyone.

In 2012-13, each employee got an automatic 2 percent cost-of-living raise, with the potential for another 3 percent based on performance evaluations.

In 2013-14, each employee could see his or her pay rise by up to 5 percent based on a performance evaluation, but no employee would be guaranteed a raise. In fact, few or none would get anything close to the maximum, Town Manager Seth Eckard said.

“But I think employees who have worked exceptionally hard this year should be rewarded for their efforts,” he said Tuesday.

But some members of council have raised questions about pay increases, merit or otherwise, and whether they were deserved.

At a budget meeting April 4, Councilwoman Trena McRary Kirby raised the specter of the county’s double-digit unemployment (11.6 percent, according to figures release Wednesday) and questioned the wisdom of raising pay in tough economic times.

“You’re taking money from people who are unemployed,” McRary Kirby said.

Council members also worried that merit-based raises would go to employees who didn’t deserve them.

“I want it for the people that are doing a good job and going the extra mile,” McRary Kirby said. “Not people who are coming in late and being rude to customers.”

Attendance problems were the main issue discussed, prompting Eckard to say he could avoid giving merit-based raises to employees who had “been late three times in a month.”

At the April 4 meeting, Eckard made the case for pay increases in Sawmills by pointing out that Sawmills employees could easily drive 15 minutes to Lenoir and make more money.

Based on public salary information, general laborers for the City of Lenoir don’t make much more than they would in Sawmills. In Lenoir, the salary range is about $8.56 to $13.35 hourly. In Sawmills, the range is $9 to $12.79, with a mean wage of $10.45 an hour.

But in higher positions, the gap is more evident. The pay range for Lenoir’s finance director position starts at $33.56 an hour and caps at about $52.36, compared to $19.87 an hour in Sawmills – although Lenoir’s position is broader, including assistant city manager and human resources manager duties.

Sawmills’ current administrative assistant makes $10.50 an hour. In Lenoir, pay for that position starts at $11.48 and caps at about $18 an hour.

City of Lenoir employees do not receive merit raises, assistant city manager Danny Gilbert said. Employees received a 2 percent cost-of-living raise in 2013. The city’s 2013-14 budget does not currently include any pay raises.

In Granite Falls, a municipality closer to Sawmills’ size, town employees haven’t received a merit pay increase since 2009. That year, Granite Falls employees were eligible for merit increases of up to 2 percent in addition to a 3 percent cost-of-living increase.

Sawmills’ lower pay is just a function of the town’s size, Eckard said – but he wants council members to keep in mind that his employees have other options nearby.

“I can’t say enough about the staff I have working for me at the Town of Sawmills,” he said Tuesday. “My team works hard every single day serving the citizens of Sawmills with relatively little pay and praise. I absolutely could not do my job without them.”

Pay for Sawmills employees is a budget item that will approved by the council later this year. Support among the council members for an increase is mixed – Eckard said it’s his impression that three of the five council members support it.