By Richard Sullins |

Two and a half years after the COVID pandemic first came to America’s shores, its effects linger on. A strong case could be made that the most impactful of these is the labor shortage, this inability not just to find new people to fill vacant positions, but also to keep good employees from leaving.

That’s especially true in the public sector. Among units of government, managers often have much less flexibility to offer the kinds of salaries and benefits that their private sector competitors can extend to lure new recruits. The result is that vacant positions can remain unfilled for months at a time, or even longer.

Lee County Manager Dr. John Crumpton told county commissioners on October 17 how this circumstance is playing out here. On the very evening he gave his report, Crumpton said his human resources director was reporting 38 positions unfilled – one out of every 10 county positions.

Crumpton said just because a position may be empty doesn’t mean its assigned duties disappear. They have to be picked up by other employees already carrying a full-time load of their own and in some cases, having to take on work that they are not qualified to do.

Crumpton told the commissioners what is happening is not limited to public employees or even within the county. SAGA CEO Jimmy Randolph is hearing some of the same things in the private sector, he said. But what he is hearing, the county manager said, is that salaries have not kept up with the costs of living and that is the top reason people are leaving. The steep inflation increases of this year only add to that pressure.

County employees received a 4 percent salary increase this year when the budget was adopted in the summer. Crumpton said more might have been done for them if cutting property taxes had not been a higher priority item for the commissioners. But four months into the new fiscal year, higher than expected revenues are coming into the county’s coffers and he recommended an additional 2 percent increase for county employees.

Crumpton’s proposal was met with support from both sides of the aisle. Democratic Commissioner Robert Reives said, “I have been talking about this for months and I appreciate your keeping an eye on the welfare of our employees.”

Republican Bill Carver went further, suggesting “I think we should review our pay scales every January when budgeting work begins. That lets us stay up with the marketplace and keep our good employees.”

This additional cost of living adjustment will add another 2 percent to the salaries of all full-time and permanent part-time employees effective January 1, 2023. The cost to the county will be $260,884.

County projects to receive legislative funding

Tucked into the 192 pages of the state budget that was adopted this summer by the legislature is funding for 11 projects that will benefit programs across Lee County, and Crumpton shared the details of that funding during the meeting.

The $800,000 that will pay for these projects was included at the request of state Senator Jim Burgin, who represents Lee County in the legislature. Crumpton said Burgin personally selected which projects would receive funding and the amounts attached to them.

Five organizations were chosen to receive $100,000 each: Central Carolina Hospital, Helping Hand Clinic, Kiwanis Park, Outreach Mission, and Veterans Harbour Inn.

Four others will receive $50,000 each in funding: Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Carolina, the Reach Out Crisis Pregnancy Center, the Salvation Army, and the Veterans Court.

Rounding out the list of 11 projects are the North Carolina Veterans Memorial Pavilion in Broadway ($70,000) and the Lee County Sheriff’s Office ($30,000).

Crumpton said county staff members are contacting each organization and that they will be asked to provide a statement of work before the funding is released.

Other projects updated

Crumpton provided new information about the status of other county projects to the commissioners. He reported that design work on the Multi-Sports Complex continues to go according to schedule and that they will likely be ready in time for review by the joint Technical Review Committee in November. The TRC looks at all public and private projects to determine their impact on the community and gauge whether other levels of scrutiny should be applied.

Santiago Giraldo, Development Services Director for Lee County, showed new renderings of the proposed library that will be built on Bragg Street adjacent to O.T. Sloan Park. By spending a little more time during the initial design phase, Giraldo said the architects had turned the 33,000 square-foot rectangular building slightly clockwise and gained additional space for an entry plaza and updated parking lot, as well as reducing the amount of extensive grading the previous design would have required.

The roofline of the building is designed to be reminiscent of the Deep River Camelback Truss Bridge, a county landmark built in 1908 that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The schematics of the new library will be delivered to the building’s contractor, Samet Corporation, before the holiday break in December to ensure the project meets all requirements and is still under budget.

Crumpton also presented proposed updates to the security policy at the courthouse complex. They spring from a recent walk-through of the parking area by judges and conversations afterwards. The most significant of these changes is that there will now be only one authorized entrance to the courthouse. All employees, attorneys, and the public must come and go through this single access point and areas inside the courthouse will be accessible based on a colored badge system.

Commission Chairman Kirk Smith presented a listing of proposed future projects that would be presented to the state Department of Transportation by the Lee County Transportation Planning Committee. The list is a means of expressing to DOT the wishes of the community on those roadways and intersections that are deemed to be in greatest need of attention. The Commissioners voted to approve the list, which includes five items:

Tramway Road/US-1/15-501 intersection,
Tramway Road NC-78 congestion,
Traceway intersection with NC-87 South
Colon Road widening and extension from Deep River Road to US 15-501
Redirect Rod Sullivan Road and railroad bridge overpass to the airport