JPs set officials' salaries, reject own pay cuts

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

CARROLL COUNTY -- The salaries of their fellow elected officials were on the minds of Justices of the Peace at Friday's meeting of the Carroll County Quorum Court. JPs considered two related ordinances dealing with salaries, passing the first and tabling the second.

The first of these ordinances -- introduced by JPs Ronald Flake, Don McNeely, and Lamont Richie -- was intended to set the salaries of elected officials through 2014.

The measure's sponsors have said it is necessary to satisfy a state law requiring JPs to set the salaries of elected officials. The law also prescribes a range within which those salaries can be set.

The last time Carroll County JPs had passed such an ordinance was in 2008, and that law expired last year, leaving the county in violation of their salary-setting mandate. Richie said JPs needed to pass a replacement ordinance by 2013 to avoid attracting attention from legislative auditors.

The ordinance generated discussion for two reasons. First, it differed from the Budget Committee's proposal cut JPs' annual salaries from $1,800 to $1,500, the lowest allowed by state law.

JP Dan Mumaugh -- who sat on the Budget Committee with fellow JPs John Howerton and Jack Deaton -- has said the cut was mostly a symbolic gesture, given the fact that the committee had initially asked departments county wide to cut budgets by 10 percent from 2012 levels.

In contrast with the Budget Committee's proposal, the ordinance proposed by Richie and fellow JPs would have maintained JP salaries at their existing levels.

"Our feeling was that, unless all elected officials were willing to take a pay cut, then JPs shouldn't be required to," Richie said, "and if it is symbolic, then it should be for all elected officials."

JP Larry Swofford disagreed.

"Yes, it is symbolic," Swofford said, "but we're all here as a service, not to collect our check, I feel. Requiring the rest of elected officials (to do the same is different) -- that's their livelihood."

"I don't buy that," Richie said.

Howerton then asked Mumaugh if he had been consulted about the ordinance. Mumaugh said he had not.

"To just arbitrarily throw this out here -- I don't feel that's right, either," Howerton said.

Swofford also objected to Richie's lumping of JPs with other elected officials.

"The JPs are elected officials like anyone else," he said, "but, on the other hand, we're the only ones -- sitting up here -- that can set our own salaries. The rest of the elected officials can't, so that puts us on two different playing fields."

Swofford then raised another objection to the ordinance.

"My next problem," he said, "is (that) I don't know why that we're freezing the elected officials wages for two years and we're not freezing other people's."

Richie responded that the ordinance was not intended to "freeze" anything.

"Why (then), can we not just do this next year?" Swofford asked. "I know it doesn't say 'frozen' in this ordinance, but it is an ordinance and it says, 'For calendar years 2012, 2013, and 2014, the salaries of elected officials are, by ordinance, this amount.'"

Richie responded that salary ordinances had always been made effective for several years.

"We simply set this, so if the Quorum Court doesn't get to it next year, we are covered having met our obligation under state law to set the salaries," Richie said.

"If you consider our history, and our county's history, we are not good at doing things when they're due," Flake added.

JP John Reeve concurred with Richie and Flake.

"It's semantics that doesn't mean anything," he said.

In response to Swofford's concern that other elected officials were being singled out, Flake noted that state law required JPs to set the salaries of all county employees, in addition to elected officials. Flake and his cosponsors had actually intended to introduce a second ordinance to this effect on Friday, also.

However, they delayed it until December to allow for more research.

At Friday's meeting, Richie pointed out that the jobs set up in the payroll system did not match the ordinance that was passed in 2008.

"And in a couple of instances," he said, "there are more employees in a department than were approved in 2008."

Richie said County Clerk Jamie Correia would provide each department head with the 2008 ordinance, to sort it all out ahead of the Dec. 14 meeting of the Quorum Court.

Mumaugh asked Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Devon Closser, who sat in the audience, for clarity on whether the court was, indeed, required by law to set the salaries.

Closser said they were. She also noted that, even if the JPs were to change the salaries of elected officials, the changes could not take place until the January after the next general election. The ordinance under consideration did not, however, change anyone's salary.

Mumaugh was originally going to abstain from the vote on the salary ordinance because, he explained, it was in conflict with the budget on the point of JP salaries.

However, Richie then reminded Mumaugh of Closser's statement that any salary changes could not go into effect immediately anyway.

"The budget, on this point, is moot," he said.

Flake also pointed out that some version of the ordinance would have to be passed by the end of the year in order to comply with state law.

In the end, JPs unanimously approved the ordinance and agreed to amend the 2013 budget to keep JP salaries at their current levels.

Extra pay period

Also Friday, JPs engaged in a lengthy discussion over another salary-related ordinance. This one, introduced by Mumaugh, would have approved the allocation of another $181,000 for salaries, over what had been approved in the 2012 budget.

The ordinance was necessary because 2012 had 27 pay periods -- one more than a normal year, and one more than had been planned for during last year's budget considerations.

During the discussion period on the ordinance, Flake raised an objection relating to the pay of salaried employees.

He asked County Treasurer Cindy Collins whether the county had planned ahead and stretched the salaried employees' pay over the additional pay period. Otherwise, he said, the county would wind up paying salaried employees more than the approved amount.

"I don't guess I get your point," Collins said.

Flake tried to clarify: "I've been told before that salaried employees, their pay doesn't vary by the time they work," he said. "They get paid a set salary. That is the amount we budget. That is the amount we set. And that pay is based on 26 pay periods, so if we pay a 27th pay period to salaried employees ... we would be paying out of budget, and we would be overpaying the set salaries."

Flake suggested that, if the county were going to pay the additional money, the salary ordinance -- just passed -- would have to be amended.

Collins later said that the extra pay period occurred regularly every eight to 10 years and had never been contemplated in the budget.

Mumaugh said he felt the County was obligated to pay the additional money, though it should have been budgeted for at the end of last year.

Richie suggested that a distinction had to be drawn between "salaried employees" and "elected officials."

"They (officials) are not required to be in the office at all," he said. "They're not on a 35-hour basis. They're not on a 40-hour basis. They're on whatever they need to do. There is no obligation. You can take vacation when you want to. You may not do it from a practical matter. But you're not obligated. You are elected by the people, and you can only be fired by the people -- And if you were on vacation all the time, presumably, you would be."

Flake responded that he thought the only salaried employees on the county pay roll were the elected officials.

"They're given an annual salary," he said, "which we are responsible to set -- and it has been set. That's what they get paid for the year -- whether they work one day or 365 days. ... If somebody had thought of this last year, that salary would have been divided into 27 different payments."

"We cannot pay an extra paycheck to our salaried employees," Flake concluded.

Flake also noted a typo in one paragraph of the ordinance and asked why extra salary money had been allocated for the Quorum Court.

As the discussion wound down, Mumaugh tried to clear the air.

"I believe that -- I know that -- the treasurer and the clerk were trying to do this by the book and do the best by the county and the county employees," he said. "(However) we obviously need to work out the details."

Mumaugh suggested that the ordinance be tabled.

JPs agreed to consider the ordinance again in December, once the additional pay for elected officials had been removed.

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