The Orange County Board of Commissioners will conduct a budget hearing at 7 p.m. tonight to give residents the chance to sound off on the proposed 2021 budget. But some public health  employees aren’t happy with the proposal, which cuts merit bonuses and freezes pay. 

The proposed $273.5 million spending plan does not call for a tax increase. Instead, the county has cut spending by implementing a pay and hiring freeze for employees. Pay and benefits for county employees make up nearly 60 percent of the budget.

In addition, the city manager’s recommended budget suspends performance-based merit bonuses, which can be up to 50 cents an hour for some employees. Nor does the budget include the typical cost-of-living wage increase of 2 percent for employees.

Those bonuses are a big deal to the city’s emergency medical technicians, who are among the lowest paid public safety workers in the county.

The starting salary for a basic EMTs is $31,858 in Orange County, according to information from the county website, $2,000 less than firefighters and $11,000 below the starting salary for a Hillsborough police officer. 

And while Durham and Wake counties implemented hazard pay for public safety personnel working on the front lines of the pandemic, Orange County has no plans to do so. 

Employees learned about the proposal to suspend merit bonuses in an email Monday signed, “Have a great day!”

One EMT, who did not want their name published for fear of retaliation, called the plan to cut merit bonuses “a slap in the face.”

“I know there needs to be budget cuts,” the employee told the INDY. “I just cant believe they are going to pull it from essential workers and EMS.”

Orange County Board of Commissioners Penny Rich says she understands the frustration and low pay, noting her son worked as an EMT for two years. But the county is facing up to $8 million in revenue shortfall, making this year’s budget even more challenging. Right now, “everything is on freeze.”

“If there’s no money, you can extend bonuses unless you raise taxes and boy, I just do not see raising taxes for anything during a pandemic,” Rich told the INDY by phone Tuesday. “I can understand the frustration, I absolutely do, but on the other end do you raise taxes and then people can’t live here anymore because they can’t afford their taxes?”

The Orange County Board of Commissioners is expected to finalize the 2021 budget June 14.

Click here to access the full proposed budget on the county’s website. 

To tune into tonight’s budget hearing at 7 p.m., click here. 

Contact Raleigh news editor Leigh Tauss at 

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