Salary study again is focus of JPs' debate as contention grows

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

CARROLL COUNTY -- A proposed study of county employees' salaries again became the focus of debate at the Oct. 19 meeting of the Carroll County Quorum Court.

Since July -- when JPs allocated up to $20,000 for the study and passed a resolution urging County Judge Sam Barr to negotiate a contract -- the issue has attracted controversy.

Last month, JPs Lamont Richie and Ronald Flake -- two vocal proponents of the study -- criticized Barr for his refusal to produce a contract.

On Friday, the two JPs again dominated discussion. However, this time, they focused less on the judge's inaction -- seeking instead to undermine his justifications for that inaction.

Though the judge has said the study would be a waste of money, he has focused his public comments on the alleged legal risks of the proposal.

In defense of this argument, Barr has cited a similar study undertaken decades ago by the City of Harrison, which resulted, indirectly, in a class-action lawsuit against the city.

In September, the judge said he thought the lawsuit had resulted from the failure of city officials to follow the recommendations of that study. Given the county's current fiscal condition -- budgets are being slashed by 10 percent in some departments -- Barr said it did not make sense to make any unnecessary financial commitments.

However, at the time, neither Barr, nor anyone else, knew the details of the lawsuit.

Those details have since come to light. After obtaining a copy of the Harrison suit last month, The Carroll County News contacted Robert White, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs in that case.

White told the paper it was not the study itself that had caused the lawsuit. Rather, he said, the suit resulted because Harrison City Council members passed a resolution adopting those recommendations as the official pay schedule of the city. In effect, they bound themselves to them.

When, several years later, officials departed from that schedule, some city employees filed a class action lawsuit alleging the city had withheld promised pay raises.

The city settled out of court for $360,000 and also agreed to future pay raises.

On Friday, Richie said he thought those facts flew in the face of the judge's position.

"I do not believe the facts support that we are facing an eminent lawsuit," he said.

Flake and Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Devon Closser agreed.

To reinforce his point, Richie pointed out that, after settling the lawsuit and repealing the problematic resolution, the City of Harrison had contracted with the same firm to conduct a new salary study. Of course, the second time, they did not adopt the recommendations by resolution.

Barr was conspicuously silent at Friday's meeting -- offering no answer to the JPs challenges.

After last month's confrontation in Quorum Court, Barr had told JPs he was prepared to negotiate with Blair Johanson, the president of the firm selected to conduct the study.

However, the impasse with JPs only hardened at that meeting when Barr gave Johanson three conditions for moving forward.

He had a copy of the Harrison lawsuit sitting on his desk when he told Johanson two of those conditions were meant to protect the county from litigation.

Barr's first demand was that JPs pass a resolution binding themselves to the recommendations of the study -- a demand that, Flake and Richie have said, seems irrational given the facts of the Harrison case.

His second condition was that the Johanson group take out a half-million dollar surety bond as insurance against lawsuits. Johanson has flatly rejected this demand -- saying it, too, was unreasonable.

Barr's final demand was that one half of the proposed study be abandoned. The half of the study in question, Johanson has said, is meant to ensure that compensation within the county is fair -- that is, that employees who perform comparable jobs within different county departments are paid similar salaries.

The judge said he opposed this portion of the study because he felt it was an attempt to undermine the power of elected officials to manage their own payroll -- a concern which Flake and Johanson have said is unfounded.

At Friday's meeting, Richie said he felt "blindsided" by the judge's demands. Flake went one step further, saying he felt "sandbagged."

Flake said he had told Barr he did not feel the need to be present during the negotiations because he "trusted" him.

Besides, "there wasn't much to be negotiated," Flake said. Most of the terms had been established in April, in the firm's response to the county's request for proposals.

"I think the judge is playing politics or some other game with us," Flake said Friday.

Toward the end of the meeting, Flake focused attention on the portion of the study Barr has requested withheld.

Flake said he suspected some employees were underpaid and others overpaid, though he did not name names.

Later in the meeting, Flake resurrected the subject.

"I think someone doesn't want our payroll looked at," he said -- declining, again, to speculate who someone might be.

"We need to find out a fair way to handle our payroll," he said. " ... That is our job, to fix the number and compensation of county employees."

"We need to decide if the judge is going to set our payroll or we are," he concluded.

Though Flake and Richie have been especially vocal commentators, the study also has its dissenters on the court. JPs John Howerton and Chris Graham voted against the proposal in July. Both have said their constituents are overwhelmingly opposed to the study.

On Friday, JPs Larry Swofford and Jack Deaton said they had also encountered a lot of opposition. Deaton said he had always been skeptical of the study's value, though he had voted for it out of respect for the personnel committee's recommendation.

Towards the end of Friday's discussion, Flake and Richie proposed delaying the 2013 budget until the study was approved.

"As far as trying to force this through, I don't think we can," Howerton said in response.

"I don't see that it would make sense to do that (salary study) this year," JP Dan Mumaugh said. Mumaugh is one of three JPs who serves on the budget committee, which is finalizing the proposed 2013 budget, to be presented to the full Quorum Court in November.

"If we want to do this as a Quorum Court, we must do it for the 2014 budget," he said.

In the end, the JPs conceded that the salary study would not be completed in time for the 2013 budget, and the matter was put to rest.

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