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County looking at pay, job duties

By BOB HANSEN - bhansen@newsexaminer.com

A judge’s proposal to reallocate job duties in his office and give his staff a raise is forcing the Fayette County Council to examine how county workers are paid.

Judge Paul L. Freed asked the County Council to let him have three part-time staff positions in the office of Superior Court, rather than one full time and one part time. He presented the proposal Tuesday morning to the Fayette County Commissioners and that evening to the council, saying it is “budget neutral” and would help alleviate a turnover problem.

Freed has had to replace his full-time court reporter a few times in just two years on the bench, continuing a practice which started before he became judge. The issue, he said, is low wages and the cost of health insurance available to full-time county employees. After the current court reporter turned in her notice, he overheard her saying that she would have more take-home pay by being a part-time employee and getting health insurance through the state’s H.I.P. 2.0 Medicaid replacement program.

He figured out that the office could have three part-time employees for the same amount of money as is being paid to the current staff, because the health insurance premium would go away.

He said he could also give his staff a raise, and his figures showed he could pay them about $13.11 an hour.

That’s where the rub came in for the County Council. Many part-time employees in other courthouse offices are paid in the $11 an hour range, council members pointed out. Those employees would probably want the same wages as the court staff.

“It’s a Pandora’s box. We have opened it and tried to close it several times in my tenure here,” said Shirley Wise, a council member.

County wages are established based on a system of employee classifications so that people doing roughly equivalent work are paid at the same rate. That policy has been in force several years.

The council’s finance chairman, Dale Strong, said “I don’t want you (Freed) to think we’re not sympathetic ... but it’s more convoluted than it appears.”

Freed said he didn’t think so, arguing that the work his staff performs is harder than the work of staff in other offices and, thus, they should be paid more.

Sheriff Joey Laughlin and former sheriff Frank Jackson, now a council member, agreed that if members of the court staff quit, “it can gum up the works for everyone” in the court system, in Laughlin’s words.

County Commissioner Gary Naylor said that job descriptions and the pay classifications would need to be changed if court employees are to be paid differently.

Council President Mike Wenta had said that the council is “not opposed to it (Freed’s proposal) but we have to make sure it’s not going to come back and bite us in the butt.”

Wenta asked the county personnel committee to study the issues. The personnel committee will meet at noon Friday. The full council will have a special meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 17, to consider options. Both meetings will be in the commissioners’ meeting room of the courthouse.

Laughlin said he has a part-time employee whose wages should be adjusted, and asked if he could present that to the personnel committee as well. Chairwoman Holly Dunn agreed that he could.

All this comes in the month before the council begins considerations for the 2019 county budget. Freed said the situation in his office cannot wait until a new budget takes effect on Jan. 1, 2019.