Cobb commission to vote on retention bonuses, $1M in transportation contracting

Jun. 14—MARIETTA — Cobb County commissioners Monday debated spending about $636,000 on retention bonuses and $1 million on transportation contracting services, measures described by staff as “Band-Aids” to address understaffing and a backlog of maintenance projects.

The commission is set to vote on the requests at its Tuesday board meeting.

In an effort to ensure employee retention, one-time, $1,500 bonuses would be distributed to approximately 424 employees in certain divisions. In order to be eligible, employees must have started working for the county prior to April 1.

Crucially, the bonuses are contingent on employees staying with the county for 12 months from receipt of the bonus — quitting would require the recipient to refund the bonus.

According to a memo from department heads sent to commissioners, Cobb’s transportation department is operating with 40% vacancy in positions that perform maintenance on traffic signals, signs, markings, roads, bridges, drainage and rights-of-way.

“It’s already at a critical level,” Drew Raessler, the county’s transportation director, said at Monday’s agenda work session. “It’s in danger of getting into an emergent level, should we not do something just to keep from losing additional staff.”

In the water department, positions which maintain meters, water mains and sewer lines are 31% vacant — water reclamation facility jobs are 23% vacant.

The parks department is experiencing 31% vacancy, and the fleet division, which maintains thousands of county vehicles, is at 30% vacancy. In transit, 19% of driver and support positions are vacant; in property management, 32% of jobs that maintain and operate county facilities are vacant.

The bonuses would be funded using federal COVID-19 relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.

In addition to the bonuses, commissioners are being asked to greenlight the use of $1 million from the capital projects fund to pay for contracted transportation maintenance services. The money would be paid to private construction firms for transportation repairs and maintenance which the county’s transportation division lacks the staff to complete.

Per Raessler, his department has operated with more than 40% vacancy for the past year. The frequency of the county mowing grass has been extended by two weeks, and work-order completion dates have been pushed back by a month, due to understaffing.

Raessler said the limited staff the county does have is focused on the most pressing repairs and maintenance which ensure road safety, while other priorities have fallen by the wayside.

While there was debate over whether the bonuses should be funded out of ARPA funds or some other source, Commissioners Jerica Richardson, Monique Sheffield and JoAnn Birrell seemed to support both measures. Chairwoman Lisa Cupid was not present because she is out of town attending a conference, and will not be present for Tuesday’s meeting.

“I don’t know about everyone else, but I am inundated with emails regarding the right-of-way (grass) needs to be cut, or, there’s so many different issues, I’m sure, across the county,” Sheffield said.

Commissioner Keli Gambrill, however, took issue with the requests, worrying that other departments not included in the bonus request will soon ask for their own bonuses.

“We’ve got other employees that are going to want the same $1,500 bonus that they’re not going to get, and that’s where, again, we start this internal struggle within our organization that we seem to never be able to get out of,” Gambrill said.

County Manager Jackie McMorris acknowledged that retention was a problem across divisions, saying “we are bleeding throughout the entire county.”

But the positions identified in the bonus request, she said, are those which keep critical public infrastructure online.

“Trust me, I wrestle with this all the time,” McMorris said. “But not all of the employees are making $9 and $10 and $11 an hour. This is to address some of those folk, in some of the positions we cannot afford to continue to lose.”

McMorris added that the county could not address the complaints of constituents, which filter through commissioners to the staff, if it continues to hemorrhage employees.

To address root causes affecting recruiting and retention, the county is also in the midst of a pay and classification study which will recommend adjustments to pay scales. McMorris said she anticipates the commission will adopt the study in July and implement it in September.

Gambrill also said that approving both the bonuses and the $1 million in transportation contracting could send the wrong message to the public — handing out bonuses while also hiring private contractors.

“The bonuses are for retaining the people we have,” Birrell said. “The contractors are to fill that void of the 30% vacancy.”

The commission will meet for its regular meeting Tuesday at 9 a.m. in the BoC meeting room at 100 Cherokee St.

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