President judge, commissioners clash over salaries

January 25, 2013
Barbara Miller/Observer-Reporter President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca talks with court employees Thursday after a meeting of the Washington County Salary Board at the Courthouse Square office building.

Raises for probation office supervisors have been a bone of contention between the Washington County commissioners and President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca since last year.

The latest showdown occurred Thursday in the Courthouse Square office building at a meeting of the county salary board.

The judge asked that the salary board grant raises she requested for court employees in November.

“We don’t want to raise taxes,” Commission Chairman Larry Maggi said during the course of a more than 15-minute discussion with O’Dell Seneca. In the ensuing discussion, Commission Vice Chairman Diana Irey Vaughan said the county Human Resources Department is reviewing job descriptions and assigning points in accordance with duties performed, but Charles Nichols, human resources director, was just told Wednesday to include court employees.

“For four years, the court has been asking to review some things and we’ve been doing some things piecemeal and I’ve been hearing about a point system that I know nothing about,” O’Dell Seneca said.

“I’m not sure that I buy into a point system. I need to know what you’re going to do to address some of these issues, and I need to know what your plan is.”

According to county salary records, two Juvenile Probation Department supervisors, both hired since 2000, made $60,781 last year, while three probation officers who were hired in the 1980s and are members of the bargaining unit made $63,232.

The chief juvenile and adult probation officers, both hired in the mid-1990s, made $67,602. An adult probation assistant chief made $64,250.

Compounding the pay gap is overtime pay for probation officers under the terms of the union contract. Longevity, or length of county employment, also carries a monetary incentive.

The probation officers’ contract expired Dec. 31, and they are continuing to work under the terms of the old pact.

“I feel that a four-year wait has been sufficient and I’ve got to go forward,” O’Dell Seneca told the commissioners. “This point system, in my eight years as president judge, has never been invoked.”

Commissioner Harlan Shober said Washington County has gone as far as comparing salaries with those in other fourth-class counties, but the judge said in some counties “the chiefs are making $81,000-plus. I don’t want to get bogged down on one specific position.”

This dispute over court employees’ salaries became apparent during the county’s 2013 budget preparations in November when the commissioners said the treasury had not received $235,000 from the courts in 2012.

The money paid by offenders is first forwarded to the state and remitted back to courts to offset costs, including salaries of probation department employees. If the money had been deposited in the county treasury, as has occurred in the past, the commissioners said they could have retained more of its surplus.

Roger Metcalfe, county finance director, requested the $235,000 in April but was told by Tom Jess, deputy court administrator, that he didn’t know when the money would be turned over.

Irey Vaughan tabled the judge’s motion for raises pending a review of court employees’ salaries that should be completed within the next two months. The commissioners can make raises retroactive to the beginning of the year if they choose.

The commissioners and Controller Michael Namie voted to table the judge’s motion for raises for court employees. O’Dell Seneca cast the lone negative vote.

“In fairness, we need to get the point system done,” Irey Vaughan said after the meeting.

“We’ve got close to 1,000 employees,” Maggi said after the meeting. “She’s asking for raises which are very substantial, which throws the whole county compensation out of whack.”

At the beginning of the year, the commissioners granted 3 percent raises to county employees not covered by union contracts that are still under negotiation or will end up before a labor arbitrator.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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