Premium Pay concern

Justice John Allison (right) expresses concern about the cost of premium pay for county employees at the Quorum Court Budget and Finance Committee meeting Tuesday night. The Court has 2021 expenses to consider, he said.

Votes at Tuesday night’s Quorum Court committee meetings show county employee premium pay will be back under debate, as well as timing of pay raises for some county employees.

Two committees met – Personnel and Budget and Finance. Budget and Finance met after Personnel in order to review that committee’s votes moving a series of pay raise ordinances, 21-32 to 21-36 to Budget and Finance. These ordinances reflect pay raises for chief deputies in the collector, treasurer, county clerk, circuit clerk and assessor’s offices. In each case the salary was increased $4,595 to a $55,600 salary, based upon a review of the salary for these positions in similar counties in the state.

The court had recently passed an ordinance requiring a formal structure for pay raise requests, including documentation based upon pay scales in other counties. The same requests had been rejected earlier for not meeting the new ordinance’s requirements.

Justice Kris Kendrick, Personnel Committee member who sponsored the structure ordinance, complimented department heads for the completeness of the packets submitted which supported the pay raises.

The only debate on raises was a point brought forward by Justice John Pickett citing that the county’s personnel manual mandated that raises for county employees be submitted in either May or September. Under this, Pickett cited, the raises should go into effect Jan. 1, 2021, as opposed to the Oct. 19 date used in the ordinances.

Pickett, as Personnel Committee member and Budget and Finance Committee chair, brought his point forward twice. It was not brought up for vote, leaving the Oct. 19 effective date (the date of next week’s scheduled Quorum Court meeting) intact. In debate, several justices pointed out that the pay raises, including changes to the requirements for submitting, had been ongoing since at least May.

The ordinances passed through committee quickly, with little additional debate.

A unexpected turn was Justice Jerry Boyer bringing up premium pay during the Budget and Finance committee meeting. The matter was not on the committee’s agenda for the evening.

Boyer told the committee he had received a number of messages, conversations, phone call and emails from county employees who told him all county employees, regardless of department, should receive the same amount of premium pay regardless of department.

Premium pay for county employees was tabled by the Quorum Court at its September meeting after several justices spoke against both the amount being proposed and how some employees deserved more money than others. Justice Rose Roland said at the time that deputies deserved more premium pay than other county employees.

The money was derived from federal funds, CARES Act and American Rescue Plan money, the latter representing $24.3 million to the county. Premium pay, cited as one of the intents of the Rescue Plan, is for those who had to contended with possible coronavirus infection as part of their job duties, such as interacting with the public.

Boyer said what he had been told by employees after the September meeting the proposed $5,500 amount for each full-time employee who worked throughout the health emergency should not be based upon department.

Committee member Justice Randy Higgins, as last month’s debate on fairness was re-hashed, said, “We can make this as complicated and painful as we want, [but] let’s not make this complicated.”

Justice Tyler Pearson felt it was important to get the premium pay out to county employees.

“This will be a priority for me and will always be at the top of my list,” he said.

Pickett asked County Attorney Phil Murphy for a review of the terms by which the distribution was calculated.

Murphy explained that his office worked with County Clerk Margaret Darter in determining which employees worked in-office and from home during the health emergency, and based upon that allowed them to receive $1.80 per hour. By the nature of the Rescue Plan versus CARES Act, in-office work was drawn from Rescue Plan funds and from-home was drawn from CARES Act funds. This was due to the very tight restrictions on how Rescue Plan money could be used, Murphy said.

Hours were submitted showing the maximum an employee could have worked during that time was 3,040 hours, resulting in the final figure of maximum possible of $5,500.

Other justices in attendance raised concerns, Justice John Allison stating that the court had a number of projects planned, including the Animal Shelter and 911 upgrades, and had to think about this against distributing money to employees.

Murphy replied that he understood Judge Baker was not planning to approve any additional expenditures until premium pay for county employees was first passed by the court.

Justice Samuel Strain said other businesses which had distributed bonuses for work during the pandemic had done so for much less money, using a $1,500 figure.

“I think if you go through with this [returning the premium pay ordinance to the full court] it’s going to turn some of us off,” Strain said.

Strain was reminded that the court had given 1 percent pay raises to the employees last year.

Committee member Justice Matt Brown, who had voted for tabling premium pay in September, citing opposition to the Rescue Plan as a cost to future generations, called the $5,500 “shocking.”

Brown joined the committee in voting to return the ordinance to the court, but said he would vote against it.

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