College of The Albemarle officials have recommended a 3-percent pay increase for most the college’s staff and faculty.

The increase, which would take effect March 1 and cover those who were employed at COA as of June 30, 2020, was approved Tuesday by the Board of Trustees’ Finance Committee. The committee’s action still requires approval by the full trustee board.

COA President Jack Bagwell acknowledged that the “optics” of increasing COA staff pay during the COVID-19 pandemic are difficult.

“This is not a great time,” he said.

But Bagwell added that the college has been reserving money for the pay hike and is prepared to implement it.

A study for COA by Sanford-based human resources consulting firm Carolina Human Resources Inc. actually recommended a 6-percent, across-the-board salary increase to close the gap between COA employees and their peers at other educational entities in the state and region.

But Bagwell said his recommendation was to raise pay by only half, to 3 percent, of what Carolina Human Resources recommended.

“We wanted to do something — and this is the something,” he said.

Trustee Paul O’Neal raised the initial concern about the optics of increasing COA staff pay during the pandemic, which he characterized as “horrible.”

But O’Neal said it’s important to keep in mind that COA had reserved money for the pay raises. He also noted the pay hike will not take money away from other needs since funds have been set aside for it.

And trying to bump salaries up every few years to keep up with other employers competing for the same people is an ongoing pursuit, O’Neal said.

“This is part of something we have been doing for all of my 20 years on the board,” he said.

The estimated expense for the pay raise this fiscal year is $130,000.

“This would be a recurring cost,” explained Chief Financial Officer Susan Gentry, who added that the estimated cost for the 2021-22 fiscal year would be $351,000.

Bagwell said he feels the 3-percent pay increase is the right thing to do.

“This is what we feel like we can afford and do and should do,” he said.

The report prepared by Carolina Human Resources looked at salary information from area school districts, local governments and northeastern North Carolina businesses and industries. The firm also looked at pay at several other community colleges: Vance-Granville; Martin; Davidson; Carteret; Sampson; and Roanoke Chowan.

Ella Bunch, COA’s director of human resources, said the college has been losing employees to K-12 schools and Elizabeth City State University.

Trustee Tommy Fulcher asked whether COA appears to be underpaying employees in comparison with Roanoke-Chowan and Martin community colleges.

Bagwell said based on the study, COA does appear to trail some other rural community colleges in what it pays employees. He said that was a “red flag” that helped convince him some kind of pay hike was needed.

O’Neal said he agrees that while COA shouldn’t expect to compete with larger, urban community colleges, it should be leading rather than trailing what other rural community colleges pay their employees.