Salary study focuses on discrepancies in county salaries

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   The Carter County Commission passed the 2003-2004 budget which included a 1.5 percent pay raise for county employees. A motion to grant county workers an additional 1.5 percent increase in pay failed to pass the commission. If one office's pay scale is any indication, some county employees could have used the boost.
   According to the salary scale obtained by the Star, Carter County Circuit Court employees rank among the lowest paid in the county government. Some circuit court office employees who have been in the office up to four years make less money than their counterparts who have been there less than one year, according to the salary scale. Most make well below the per capita income of the county, which hardly ranks among the state's most lucrative earning counties.
   "There is no written pay policy defining policy scales," explained Lynda Vaughn of the county finance office. While the county government does operate with a general guideline of entry level salaries, the policy is not binding, Vaughn added.
   "It is supposed to be the same across the board. Everyone gets hired on at the same position," she said. "It doesn't have to be adhered to."
   Circuit Court Clerk John Paul Mathes said the salaries were based on job duties of court employees with some positions receiving higher salaries based on the position. However, Mathes also says he works from the county's set salary scale that dictates what he can pay each employee in his office. Mathes points to the county's existing salary scale that leaves little wiggle room to pay the 17 employees in his office.
   The county step pay plan has four entry level pay scales for employees. Vaughn said most county employees were hired in under categories 3 or 4 of the county pay scale. Slot four salary range went from a beginning salary of $14,792 to a maximum entry salary of $22,395, according to the county's pay scale.
   "It depends on what the job is," says Vaughn of employees hired into an office. "Everyone must stay within their budget."
   Some employees hired within the last year are earning more than employees who have been in the office up to four years. County Director of Finance Jason Cody said the county's pay scale varied based on jobs done in the office.
   "Who makes that decision is the office holder," said Cody. "They decide based on a person's qualifications or experience, or how well they fit the position.
   "They may not have been there very long, but they may have years of experience before they came."
   Cody said a salary study of all county employee levels had been discussed by the county's Financial Management Committee, but no study had been authorized. The county government employs roughly 1,000 people with school system personnel representing the overwhelming majority of that number. The county has historically had no job descriptions for any employees, according to Cody.
   A court office in a neighboring county has taken their salary issues to court. In Washington County, Clerk and Master Dianna Boarman sued the county in 1998 to obtain pay raises for her office employees.
   Boarman said officials over county government offices that collected fees such as the clerk and master, court clerk, and circuit court could sign a letter of agreement with the county accepting pay increases set forth. If an office holder could not agree with the county executive or county commission on employee salaries, the department could sue the county for more money.
   Two years after Boarman's suit was filed, Third Judicial District Chancellor Thomas Frierson released a ruling in 2000 stating her chief deputies were entitled to more money for their jobs.
   "I have three employees I feel deserve to be getting chief deputy pay," said Boarman, clerk and master in Washington County since 1974. Frierson ruled to grant three chief deputies pay hikes of approximately $2,000 for two years through 2000. Subsequent pay increases would be in line with all other county employees, according to the ruling.
   Mathes and several members of his office attended a public hearing on the budget held June 30 by the county Budget Committee. Despite the salary shortfall of circuit clerk employees, Mathes nixed taking legal action against the county government.
   "I couldn't do that," said Mathes. "I'd never do that because you've got to think about the taxpayers." Carter County Clerk and Master Charlotte McKeehan declined comment about the county's pay scale.
   Boarman said Washington County operated without a set pay scale for employees. She also said that she had job descriptions for her employees, but no job descriptions comparing her employees with other county workers existed. "It is never compared with the difficulty of other jobs," she said.