Wednesday, May 21, 2008

TOP STORY > >Deal to increase county pay falls apart

Leader senior staff writer

Raw feelings emerged at the Lonoke County Quorum Court last Thursday night as a deal to approve both a study of compensation, benefits and job responsibilities and also a new personnel policy that set starting pay at $18,500 broke down.

“I’m going to ask all of you to pass both of them tonight to keep a little peace,” said County Judge Charlie Troutman.

That said, all of his fellow Democrats—some reluctantly—joined the four Republicans to unanimously approve $27,642 to fund the JSEP study originally proposed by Republican Janette Minton. It’s intended to make county compensation fair and competitive with compensation for similar work both in area governments and in the private sector.

But when the court considered the personnel policy changes that would set starting pay for county employees at $18,500, Republicans Minton, Mark Edwards and Alexis Malham argued that the court should wait for about three months until it had heard recommendations from the Johansson Group, which would conduct the JSEP study.

Minton, Edwards and Malham abandoned their usual seats at the beginning of the meeting and sat as far as possible from fellow Republican Larry Odom. The three saidthey were willing to accept an $18,000 a year starting pay level.

They were unmoved when Troutman said it would only affect five employees and that step-grade increases had been stripped out to more than offset the $500 difference.

“What else would you like to fund?” asked Edwards. “We’re just giving money away. Why not wait for JSEP?”

Minton said the $18,000 level already represented an 11 percent increase in the starting salary.

Democrat Mike Dolan, arguing for the higher pay, said “I wasn’t crazy about JSEP, but I voted for it.”

He was among those who felt that the Minton, Edwards and Malham had reneged on the deal to vote for the pay increase in exchange for support on the JSEP proposal.

The pay increased passed its first reading 8-3, but without nine votes, it requires two more readings, which means it could be the July meeting until the proposal becomes law.

The JSEP study could be ready by the July or August meeting.

The Republicans, still smarting over the rebuke when Troutman used his position as County Judge to over ride their choice of agent—but not the plan—for the health care provider, said that Legacy Group was illegally paying the county’s share of premiums on COBRA policies for former employees.

“That’s an illegal rebate,” said Edwards, himself an insurance agent.

In other business, the court agreed to accept a $450,000 Harper Grant to help fund a new county health unit in Cabot. Milt Garris, director of the Lonoke County Health Department, said it would take another grant of about the same amount to make the new unit a reality.

JP Jodie Troutman congratulated acting JP Hollon Crum on his 59th anniversary and acting JP Virgil Turner announced he would be celebrating his 5oth anniversary May 31.