County employees may seek legal action for bonus

By Thomas Wilson
star staff
twilson@starhq.com

  Carter County employees seeking funding for a $150 employee bonus created by the Carter County Commission several years ago may employ legal action as a method to recover the money from the county's current and previous budget years.
  Attorney Richard Pectol sent County Mayor Dale Fair a letter earlier this month saying he represented several county employees seeking restoration of the $150 bonus unfunded by the County Commission in recent years. Pectol told the Star that the employees simply want the current commission to fund the bonus as it was created and funded by past commissions.
  "It is a matter of them living up to their obligations as everyone else must," Pectol said.
  The $150 bonus was initiated in the budget by the County Commission during the 1980s. County officials the STAR talked with in recent weeks said the bonus has been funded off and on for several years.
  In his letter to Fair, Pectol writes that he represents approximately 30 county employees who "do not understand why they have not received their traditional $150 yearly bonus for the past three years". Pectol said he is aware of the county's financial problems that are similar to other counties. He said county employees have "diligently performed their work for the government and expect the county to pay their lawful obligations".
  Pectol writes that the employees do not wish to litigate the issue but will do so. He writes the employees have instructed him "to commence legal proceedings if the county continues to ignore their obligation".
  Carter County government employees received a 1.5 percent pay raise in the county's fiscal year 2005 budget but did not receive the bonus. Fair said the $150 bonus was included in the 2002-2003 budget, but neither of the past two budget cycles included the money. County employees received neither a step pay raise nor the $150 bonus during the 2001-2002 budget, he said.
  The $150 bonus to approximately 180 county government employees translates to roughly $27,000 annually. If employees seek to recover the bonus for the past two years or three of the last four years, they could be seeking approximately $54,000 to $81,000 from the county.
  County office holders filed lawsuits against the county government seeking pay increases for their employees during the 1980s.
  The County Commission approved the fiscal year 2005 budget - recommended and approved by the commission's budget committee - with a hike in the county property tax rate of 34 cents from $2.22 to $2.56 per $100 of assessed value. The tax rate included a 1.5 percent pay raise to county employees.
  The county's budget committee met several times this year trying to iron out the county's 2004-2005 budget to fund the jail's expansion. Committee members frequently argued among themselves over county employee pay and discretionary spending.
  Budget committee members debated a 1.5 percent or 3 percent pay raise for county employees before approving a 1.5 percent raise. The budget did not include the $150 bonus during budget talks.
  The property tax hike came as a result of a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court at Greeneville earlier this year complaining of overcrowded conditions at the Carter County Jail. The lawsuit received class-action status when current and former inmates joined the complaint.
  A federal court order issued earlier this year required the county to have temporary housing units for inmates by early next year and a permanent jail facility built by 2007.
  The committee shot down approval of an independent study evaluating county employees' pay earlier this year. The study would have compared county employees' salaries with that of neighboring counties and provided an overview of defining job descriptions and a salary scale.