Curry County Commissioners denied two Information Technology Department employees their budgeted raises, but allocated almost $10,000 for budgeted improvements at the jail.

"As much as I'd like to approve (the raises), this is not the time to do it," said Commissioner Bill Waddle. "We are looking down the gun's barrel. We're facing a fiscal abyss, and that's worse than a fiscal cliff."

IT Director Todd Weeks said the 5 percent pay increase - approved in the 2012-2013 budget - was needed for the county to remain competitive, boost staff morale and retain employees.

"We aren't really at a competitive level," he said Wednesday during a regular Curry County Board of Commissioners meeting. "We love it here in Curry County; however, the competitive pay rates do not align."

He cited strides the county has taken in the past two years, including trying to obtain contracts with other governmental agencies to bring revenue into the county's general fund, and improvements made in consolidation, standardization and virtualization that have saved the county $40,000.

Commissioners, however, noted the county's impending "fiscal abyss," the likely public perception of doling out raises and the precedent it could set for those in other departments to seek higher pay.

Weeks said he had an application on his desk from Benton County whose salary offer is $11,000 higher than the lowest IT position in Curry County.

"There is a 2 percent unemployment rate in the IT industry," Weeks said. "There are jobs out there - really good jobs out there. My theory is to keep them (employees) happy. We can't take this out on the backs of the employees."

If the county does not find a way to fill a $3 million deficit in the 2013-2014 budget - expected if the federal government comes through this time and declines to pay OandC timber funds - the county will likely have to lay off 40 employees and will have to pay about 25,000 per person in unemployment compensation.

"The handwriting's on the wall - in indelible ink," Waddle said. "Drastic changes have to be made. In normal times, we wouldn't even be having this discussion."

Commissioner-elect David Brock Smith also spoke out against the requested raise.

"A lot of departments are not getting competitive pay," he said. "We don't want to be put over a barrel, but that could very well happen here."

Smith suggested, and the board agreed, that when such issues come before the new commission board on Jan. 7, the board vet each request individually instead of under a consent calendar item. This way, they could give it more scrutiny before making a decision. Commissioner David Itzen suggested the new board also conduct a study comparing other counties' salaries to those of Curry County.

Commissioner George Rhodes likened it to a business doing poorly and choosing to cut its advertising budget.

"If we want the opportunity to survive, we have to have access to the best people available," he said. "These people are tremendously responsible for the overall operations of this county.

"It is bad business not to approve this," he added. "If we don't have the best people available, we will not survive the onslaught that's about to happen."

Waddle said that, from a business standpoint, he couldn't agree more. But public perception would hurt them in the end.

"Perception is reality," he said. "If other departments come to us with the same strong evidence, how do we handle those?"

"In the past four years, I haven't done anything based on perception, and I'm not going to do so now," Rhodes said. "We can take the short-sighted approach, and it'll be a tremendous mistake. We know what it was like four years ago. We know what it cost. And now, we're getting services and saving money. We've got to make these hard choices."

All agreed the IT department has been invaluable to the county, but couldn't justify the pay increase. A motion to approve the raise failed for lack of a second motion; a similar request to give Weeks a raise was voted down with only Rhodes casting a "yes" vote.

The irony was quickly noted when Eric Ansen requested $9,129 for heating, ventilation and electrical work at the jail and its administrative offices.

A few years ago, all three heat pumps failed there and the county moved the ones from administration to serve prisoners in the jail, he said.

"We're going through circuit breakers just to keep it at 68 degrees," Ansen said. "And there are safety issues; there are portable heaters all over the place."

"We didn't give IT a budgeted raise, why give this," Rhodes said, half in jest. "If we're going off a cliff, why don't we go way off the cliff and let the buildings fall down, too. People are more important than facilities. Every business I've ever run was successful because of its people, not because of its building. It's puzzling."

The board agreed to allocate the funds, which came in $4,000 less than the next bid for the work. It involved replacing part of the exercise yard and replacing a roof over the 911 and radio rooms.