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Judge, county council could take salary fight to court

Judge Menges lays groundwork for mandating county fill his requests for employee raises

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Judge Menges

A longstanding request from a local judge may end up being resolved in the court of law should he and members of the Howard County Council not come to a compromise.

Last week the county council entered a letter from Howard Superior I Judge Bill Menges into the record, wherein the judge laid the groundwork to potentially mandate that the county raise the salaries of his employees. The request mirrored others made recently by Menges, including during the last budget session. However, Menges’ requests to bring his employees’ pay in line with other courts always was denied because his court never reduced its staff through the county attrition policy. Superior I stands as the only court to not reduce its staff through attrition, and now the request could be heard in a trial setting.

Menges requested raises in the coming year for his court reporter and three assistant court reporters. In a letter, he argued, “The employees of Superior Court I perform the same tasks as those being paid substantially more, without any articulable, logical, or justifiable reason for the discrepancy.”

He went on to request his court reporter receive a salary bump to $42,789, up from $38,392, and raises for his assistant court reporters to a salary of $40,456, which is up from $36,011.

According to county records, the highest-paid court reporter within the area’s five courts possesses a salary of $42,789, and the highest-paid assistant court reporter works for $39,442.

The discrepancy between the wages of Superior I and the other courts has served as the root for much public debate in recent times. Through the county’s attrition policy, department heads can choose not to fill vacated positions when they become available, and that position’s salary then is partially distributed to the department’s remaining employees as raises in return for taking on extra work. The remainder is returned as a savings to the county general fund.

However, Menges’ repeated requests for raises for his employees have always been met with denials, as his court hasn’t reduced its staff through attrition.

Councilman Jim Papacek said awarding the raises without an employee reduction could jeopardize the primary incentive of attrition.

“I feel that the integrity of the attrition program, where if we give someone an increase just because other people are getting it but haven’t met the same criteria, you might as well throw the attrition thing out the window,” said Papacek. “The intent was if you reduce people, and the remaining people took on more responsibility and picked up some of the work that was being distributed around, that was a reason to increase their salaries.”

Even though the council has denied Menges’ requests in the past, they may not have a choice now.

The judge’s letter asked for a meeting with members of the council to attempt to reach an “amicable resolution” to his request. He invoked Trial Rule 60.5 in his letter.

Through that trial rule, a judge may mandate that the county meet certain budgetary requests.

According to Menges, there’s a specific procedure that must be followed in issuing such a mandate. First a letter, such as his, must be issued, and then the involved parties meet. If a solution isn’t reached during that meeting, a special judge is appointed to preside over what essentially would be a trial on the matter. The county would be legally represented, and the judge also would have to hire an attorney. Even the judge’s attorney would come at the expense of the county. The judge then would rule on the request.

Menges said that he has tried asking for the employee raises repeatedly, and this serves as the next step for him.

“I’ve tried asking for the appropriation; they turned it down,” said Menges. “So, we’ll start the mandate process.”

No date has been set for the meeting between council members and the judge. During last week’s council meeting three members volunteered to act as committee members for the meetings. Those council members were Papacek, Stan Ortman, and Dwight Singer.

Papacek said he’s uncertain as to what extent the council is willing to go in fighting the judge’s request. He said going to court over the matter, in the end, would come down to a council vote where the costs of the raises are weighed against the potential costs of legal representation.

“Hopefully we can reach a resolution to this without going any further down the road, and we can work it out,” said Papacek. “Reasonable compromise, we’re hoping, will take place here.”

Ortman noted that his participation on the committee will be contingent upon the date, but he said he’s more likely to move on approving the raise requests than fighting the judge in court.

“We all try and get along, and the judge has to support his staff the best way he sees fit. And if that’s the way he sees fit, we try to get along with it,” said Ortman.