Last week Howard County was pitted against one of its own in the court of law.
Following the issuing of a mandate for funds in February and a failed attempt at mediation, legal representatives of the Howard County Council and Howard Superior I Judge William Menges made their cases before a hearing officer selected by the Indiana Supreme Court last week.
The unusual case, which has both sides employing legal counsel on the county’s dime, centers on the judge’s longstanding attempt to procure raises for his court employees, efforts the county council has shot down repeatedly due to Menges not trimming staff like the rest of the county courts.
By and large, the county’s attrition program served as the focus of the hearing. Since the program’s inception in 2016, the county has garnered about $1.5 million in annual savings, thanks to encouraging county department heads to reduce staffing levels and partially reallocate cut positions’ salaries to raises for the remaining personnel.
As Menges has argued multiple times before the county council, his legal team focused on a culture of “unfairness” that they claimed the attrition program created. His employees – a court reporter and three assistant court reporters – make less than those of the county’s other courts. That difference came as a byproduct of the attrition program, with the other courts removing positions and the remaining employees receiving raises in return for a greater share of the workload.
“I’m going to bat for them to try and get them equal pay,” said Menges during testimony.
As part of the mandate the judge issued in February, he requested $17,000 in additional funding to issue raises to his employees, which would bring them in line with the other courts’ staff. Not fulfilling those raises, he argued in the mandate, created a “clear and present danger” for Superior I’s ability to function.
But cutting staff like the other courts, argued Menges on the stand, wasn’t possible despite the county’s efforts in recent years to reduce court workloads through the addition of a court magistrate, a problem-solving court coordinator, and a new case reallocation plan.
Those changes, said the judge, wouldn’t create a definitive effect on the court’s workload for some time as the drug cases the court used to field will “linger” within the system for long periods of time due to probation violations and similar issues.
Menges said he may be able to cut a position in about 18 months after the full effect of the local judicial system’s changes are in full swing, but in the meantime, he argued his employees still should receive salaries in line with other court workers. All of Superior I’s employees also testified during the hearing that the wage disparity had hurt office morale.
The county, on the other hand, presented an argument that sought to defend the integrity of the attrition program while comparing Superior I employee pay to that of other Hoosier courts.
Through questioning by the council’s attorney, Menges conceded the number of cases fielded by Superior I are dropping and would continue to drop.
The issue of Indiana Supreme Court caseload statistics also was broached within the hearing.
When Menges first began jockeying for employee raises in early 2018, state statistics put Howard Circuit Court as the busiest court in the county. While that was the case, the court had managed to cut its staffing levels.
However, the most recent statistics presented during the hearing showed Superior I’s workload had increased, surpassing circuit court’s 1.39 caseload with a 1.68. The numbers determine the number of judges needed to handle a court’s caseload.
Regardless, on the stand Howard County Commissioner Paul Wyman cited circuit court’s employee reduction as evidence that Menges likely could do the same in order to get his desired employee raises. When asked if he believed whether it was fair Superior I’s employees were paid less than the other courts, he argued the system was fair because those who have received raises did so in return for more work.
Howard Superior III Judge Doug Tate also took the stand and fielded questions concerning his court’s workload. His court, which handles misdemeanor cases as well as driving offenses, handles “significantly more” cases than Superior I but carries a lesser weighted caseload because of the type of cases flowing through the court. Superior I handles cases ranging from civil to felony-level crimes. Tate’s court, too, had reduced staffing levels.
Howard County Councilwoman Jamie Bolser also testified, and said the council had been motivated to refuse Menges’ multiple requests for employee raises in order to preserve the integrity of the attrition program. She said she feared a “trickle down” effect on the other courts if the council began doling out raises without reductions in staff. She likened the attrition program’s dependence upon department head cooperation to a “house of cards” that could tumble if motivation was lost for participation in attrition.
After the hearing’s conclusion, the hearing officer said the court’s reporter would have two weeks to produce a transcript of the proceedings for both parties. After the completion of the transcript, both sides will have two weeks to submit final findings and conclusions of law to the hearing officer.