During a special budget meeting yesterday, the Calhoun Commission approved a 10% across-the-board pay raise for the dozen or so county employees.

Commission president Rick Sampson said the county employees are among the most underpaid in the state.

County Clerk Richard Kirby advocated for the raise, saying he felt bad that the legislature mandated pay raises for elected officials, leaving hard-working employees way behind.

County employees have often gone for several years at a time without getting a pay increase.

Commissioners Helmick and Weaver expressed concern about rising insurance costs and how the over-all budget might be affected.

PEIA, the state's insurance carrier has been putting off increases, with none planned for the 2007-08 fiscal year.

Kirby said the county is in the best shape financially it has been for years, saying the 10% increase would require $20,000, excluding 911 employees who are paid from special funds.

Calhoun, along with Wirt County, has the smallest budget in the state, about $1,800,000. Some of that amount is "pass-throughs," and does not represent spending local tax money.

Commissioner Helmick advocated a 5% employee increase, proposing to give a one-time "bonus" later in the year based on how the county is doing.

"I'd like to see regular pay increases every year," Helmick said.

Commissioners Weaver and Sampson expressed concern about the severe problems the county faced two years ago, a budget crunch which caused lay-offs.

Unexpected mandates, the cutting of money streams, and major increases in costs caused the county budget to drop into the red. Sampson and Weaver told county employees they do not want to go through that again.

Calhoun is one of few counties that pay all the employees health benefits, including family coverage.

Employees attending the budget meeting said they wanted the 10% increase, although adjustments in benefits might have to be made in the 2008-09 budget.

The commissioners said the issue is not that employees don't deserve a raise, it is being sure funding is stable.

Commissioner Helmick opted to support his conservative 5% position and voted against the 10% increase, with Sampson and Weaver voting for it.

The commission will approve the final budget Monday.