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Court order for county raises “usurps” authority, commissioner says

A court order for pay raises from a county judge could mean less money budgeted to other departments in 2020, commissioners said.

Washington County Commissioner Kevin Ritter said he believes a court order recently issued by Washington County Juvenile Court Judge Timothy Williams “has effectively usurped the appropriating authority of the Board of Commissioners and called into question the legitimacy of the budgetary process.”

The court order stemmed from a request from Williams for appropriations of more than $53,000 for pay raises for 20 of the 25 employees of the county’s juvenile center, made retroactively to Nov. 17.

Ritter and Williams met three times this year on budget issues. In an email dated Dec. 4, Ritter told Williams he believed the Nov. 12 meeting was good and the case Williams made for the pay raises “was reasonable and worthy of consideration.”

“In other words, this is not about the salary increases per se, but rather the manner in which those increases were implemented,” Ritter said.

He said he was uncomfortable with agreeing to the pay raises, not knowing what the commission’s budget numbers for 2020 would be.

He had advised Williams on Nov. 15 that “right now, we are still waiting for the budget numbers from the auditor and we don’t yet know what our unencumbered balance will be for January.”

Ritter also told the department heads at Thursday’s meeting that because of the court-ordered pay raises, their departments would have to do with less in 2020.

“Because we are mandated by the state to submit a balanced budget, an increase in one department necessarily means a decrease in other departments,” Ritter said.

This isn’t the first time a court order had come into play involving county pay raises.

In 2015, commissioners planned to budget for 2 percent pay raises, while the Washington County Common Pleas Court requested a 3 to 5 percent raise for their employees. After receiving two court orders from the common pleas court, commissioners decided to contact the Ohio Commission on Dispute Resolution to reach an agreement. Commissioners failed to comply with the courts’ budget orders, the judges intended to file a mandamus action against the commissioners. This would have been the start of a lawsuit against commission.

It was asked of the commission what percent cost of living increase this current request was for the employees, and Commission President David White said was about a 7 percent raise.

“Most departments generally figure somewhere around 2 percent,” White added.

Commissioner Ron Feathers said he was concerned about the effect on union employees, as the raises in Williams’ court are non-union.

“We don’t have any idea what this is going to do with the union contracts that have a ‘me too’ clause in them. This is a domino effect,” Feathers said.

Williams said he was unaware of Ritter’s statement or that the raises had been discussed at the Thursday commission meeting, as they were not on the agenda.

He said Ritter has been polite and professional until now and the two will disagree on how the pay raises were handled.

“I think it’s important that Mr. Ritter, in his written statement that he read today, did not disagree with these pay raises,” Williams noted.

He said in the statement, Ritter said the commissioners couldn’t give a definitive answer about the pay raises as they were waiting on budget numbers from the auditor.

“I interpreted that as meaning, until January rolls around, we can’t give you an answer to your request to increase your employee’s salaries,” Williams said.

The courts are an independent branch of the government and the commissioners fund the court, but they don’t control the court.

“They have no control over anything, but as long as the requests are reasonable, they have to fund the court,” Williams added, noting that even if the meetings with commissioners about the budget are favorable, they will still get a court order regarding the budget.

Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, also called the ‘Necessary and Proper Clause’ was designed to keep one branch of government from undermining another branch.

Feathers said it was so that a local authority, such as the commission, couldn’t cut a court’s budget to nothing.

Williams said he and his court administrator, Rae Ward, go over their budget line by line and if they need more, they request it, but if they don’t, they reduce the numbers.

He said the pay raises came about because, as part of the budget process, he and Ward looked at the budgets for every department and every union contract. They look at what salaries and benefits the union employees receive, as compared to his non-union employees who do similar jobs.

“More than 50 percent of the county’s employees are union,” Ward said.

Williams said the non-union employees should be treated similarly, but not exactly, the same as the union employees.

“This year, what triggered it was the merger between the Department of Job and Family Services and Children Services,” he explained. “This was going to be a no-cost merger, as we heard all along, no-cost merger. We all knew that wasn’t going to be the case.”

He said he looked at the union contract for Children Services and saw they had 18 employees that joined the union.

“Those workers got an average raise in August of 15.12 percent, not including all the other benefits,” Williams explained. “Just looking at that, because they joined a union, they were given 15.12 percent average. Of those 18 employees, six people got over a $3 an hour increase, the highest being $4.27 an hour. Six people got between $2 and $3 raises. And three, for whatever reason, got $1 or less.”

He said the average hourly increase for those employees was $2.48.

“I then look at the juvenile center employees, not all of them, 20 of them I gave raises to, five I didn’t. Those five, their wages seem OK. Twenty of them seem underpaid a lot for doing very comparable jobs to those Children Services workers,” he explained.

The increase for Children Services workers will be $92,664 per year.

Of the raises Williams gave, 14 got $1 an hour, five got $2 an hour and one got $1.50. The average dollar amount was $1.28, compared to Children Services at $2.48, he said.

“My total increase on a yearly basis is $53,040 compared to $92,664,” he added. “My people were thrilled to get $1 an hour, and some got $2. I couldn’t live with myself and say ‘you’ll get $4 an hour’ like the union did.”

Williams said he has no issue with the unions, as they are fighting for their employees, but the department heads have to fight for their non-union employees.

He said Ritter was incorrect in saying the money for the pay raises would have to come from other departments to keep the budget balanced.

“What I find interesting, yes, I increased it $53,000, but I’m giving them back, and they know this, $136,000 at the end of this month that I haven’t been able to spend. I chose not to, I could,” he said. “That covers my $53,000 and in fact, this year, since I put the raises on, it’s only costing the county $4,900 since it’s such a short time that the raises are in effect. It’s costing the county $4,900 and I’m giving back $136,000, and I’m causing other departments to suffer. I don’t understand it.”

He said next year, the $53,000 will be added to the budget as part of the salaries.

“I’m giving back $136,000 and next year, it’s only going to cost them $53,000. What’s the difference? They’re getting a net back of just under $80,000,” he said. “It’s not going to cost them anything, as they are getting $80,000, after the raises, back.”

He noted the Children Services employees who just joined the union will receive another 19.77 percent raise in August, per their contract.

“From day one, over the three year contract, they’ll get a 25.5 percent raise,” Williams said.

Flite Freimann, director of Washington County Job and Family Services, said he hasn’t done any analysis on the numbers to see the rate increases.

“It’s not a raise in that it’s not across the board,” he said.

He explained it was discussed in the fall of 2018 that when the merger of the two departments occurred, the non-union Children Services employees would be moved to the union Ohio Department of Administrative Services pay scale which JFS used.

“The DAS had a pay scale in place,” he explained. “It would be impossible to have half the employees on an arbitrary pay scale and half on the DAS pay scale.”

He said the Children Services employee pay would be scaled over the three-year union contract to increase their pay to what the union employees were already making.

“It better serves the people in the agency, because what ends up happening is now they have stability instead of an arbitrary pay scale,” Freimann said. “Some people left the agency in 2016 and 2017 because they got more money in another county.”

Michele Newbanks can be reached at mnewbanks@mariettatimes.com.

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