A long-running dispute between Howard County officials and Superior I Judge Bill Menges came to a close last week, but not without costing the area’s taxpayers a pretty penny.
Last week the Indiana Supreme Court-appointed special judge issued a ruling on the mandate Menges leveled at the county in early 2019, and the hearing officer ultimately sided with the county in the judge’s attempt to force the county to pay Superior I’s employees higher salaries. The ordeal cost the county nearly $75,000.
In his ruling, Special Judge W. Tobin McClamroch wrote, “It is undisputed that the four court reporters in Howard Superior Court I are paid less than their counterparts in the other Howard County courts. However, the evidence is not sufficient to meet the standard requirement by Trial Rule 60.5 that the mandate is necessary for the operation of the court.”
The case grew from a slow-burning conflict between the council and Menges that transpired over the course of several months.
In late 2018, Menges initially requested that the Howard County council increase the salaries of his court reporter and three assistant court reporters, bringing them in line with the employees of the other courts. The requested raises amounted to an increase of $17,729.99. The Superior I employees’ salaries were lower than those of the other courts because Menges was the only local judge presiding over the area’s five courts to have not trimmed staff and taken part in the county’s attrition policy, which redistributes portions of cut positions’ salaries to the remaining employees in the form of raises.
At the time, members of the council denied Menges’ request, claiming that allowing him to shirk the attrition policy would undo the system, which has created an annualized savings of more than $1 million since its inception. Menges, however, argued that his employees’ lower pay hurt morale, and the requested pay increase was necessary to the function of the court. He also argued he couldn’t reduce his staff in order to utilize attrition.
Then in February 2019 the judge issued his order for a mandate of funds, setting up the legal dispute with the county that culminated in a public hearing last October. There, the two parties essentially made the same arguments that had been had in public meetings. On one hand, Menges argued his court staff worked harder than those of the other courts and thus deserved raises, and the county council resisted the request on the grounds of protecting attrition.
In his ruling, McClamroch wrote that Superior I is “the busiest of the five Howard County courts as demonstrated by the court’s utilization rate,” concurring with a long-held belief voiced by Menges. However, the special judge disagreed with another point that Menges often voiced: that Superior I struggled with employee retention due to the lower salaries. Each of the court’s current four employees had been with the court more than a year-and-a-half. The special judge also pointed out that even though Superior I employees were paid less than those of the other courts, they were “provided with benefits and have received consistent raises and bonuses that help attract and retain qualified persons.”
As such, the special judge ruled that the mandate did not meet the threshold of needing to be necessary for the operation of the court.
In a release, Howard County attorney Alan Wilson said the county was “pleased” with the ruling and that it “vindicates the county’s efforts to save the taxpayers money by establishing reasonable and fair compensation for all county employees while maintaining high standards for the efficient operation of the courts.”
Howard Conty Commissioner Paul Wyman defended the county, upholding the attrition program as a necessity that needed to be safeguarded by the county choosing to proceed with legal proceedings after Menges’ filed his mandate.
“The attrition program is an important part of properly managing taxpayer dollars,” said Wyman. “It has been used successfully to reward employees who take on additional responsibility and to reduce overall operational costs which has placed us in a strong financial position. This was an important lawsuit to ensure that the fiscal and executive bodies of county government can continue to work in the interests of the taxpayers.”
Similarly, Howard County Councilwoman Jamie Bolser said the ruling “will protect the integrity of the attrition program that has saved the taxpayers of Howard County over $1 million annually. I believe the ruling also protects the integrity of separation of powers within the local governmental structure.”
When asked for comment after the ruling, Menges said he didn’t believe he was “permitted to comment,” directing the request to his legal representation.
At a cost
Unfortunately for the county, it is required to foot the legal bills relating to the mandate for both Menges and the council.
According to records obtained through a public information request, the county is on the hook for $74,734.18 in legal fees. Menges’ legal representation through Frost, Brown, Todd, LLC cost $23,970.88, while the county’s legal fees amounted to $50,181.90. A court reporter also had to be paid for working during last year’s public hearing, and that bill amounted to $121.10.
Howard Superior III Judge Doug Tate, who was called to testify during last year’s hearing, said the cost was worth it for the county given the potential losses that would be incurred if the attrition policy was waylaid.
“Although I do not have a dog in this hunt, this decision had the effect of upholding the county’s attrition program,” said Tate. “Had the judge approved the mandate, this would have opened the door for all of the other courts to replace their employees lost to this program. To date five court employees have been reduced at a cost savings to the county in excess of $250,000 per year. This decision keeps this attrition policy in place and will continue to benefit county taxpayers.”