Commissioners resend ordinance cutting clerk’s office staff pay

Clay County Clerk Megan Thompson gives Deputy Clerk Sandy Baldwin a reassuring arm pat as Baldwin fights tears while addressing county commissioners Oct. 29 on the subject of potential pay cuts to her and other clerk staff she said were unfair.

CLAY COUNTY — Clay County Commissioners on Monday, Nov. 5, rescinded one of two ordinances passed in October that could have meant pay cuts to staff in the county clerk’s office to pay for transferring nearly $6,600 to the clerk’s office budget to help offset payroll shortfalls.

The transfer from the commission’s rainy day fund to the clerk’s office was approved Oct. 29, when commissioners voted to transfer $6,607 under one ordinance. The address for the reapportionment came from a separately approved ordinance, which stated the current two employees of the clerk’s office would face a pay reduction for the remainder of 2018 to offset the amount transferred.

Discussion at the commission’s Oct. 29 meeting about the pay reductions was had with the county clerk, a deputy clerk and commissioners leveling accusations against one another.

Afterward, County Clerk Megan Thompson said members of the county administration, legal counsel and her office reviewed the ordinance that mentioned clerk’s office employee salary reductions along with removal of specific duties from the clerk’s by the County Commission. The result was rescinding the ordinance on Nov. 5.

The rescission still allows the transfer of $6,607 from the commission’s rainy day fund, but does not reference removed job duties or pay reductions, Thompson said. In addition to the transfer, the commission approved Thompson moving $3,456 originally budgeted for office supplies, training and equipment to payroll at their Nov. 5 meeting, meaning no clerk’s office employee’s salary would be impacted.

“I’m happy we were able to come together and get it worked out,” Thompson said after Monday’s meeting.

The issue

The budget issue began when commissioners approved the fiscal 2018 budget on Dec. 18, 2017, reducing the clerk’s office budget and eliminating two of the office’s four employee positions.

The reason for the cut, according to Eastern Commissioner Luann Ridgeway, Western Commissioner Gene Owen and the ordinance that was later rescinded, was a list of duties previously assigned to the clerk’s office had been transferred to other county staffers. The duties outlined in the ordinance were: “custodian of records, digitization of records center documents, Sunshine Law requests, notary public, maintain digital records of purchase orders and supporting documentation for Sunshine Law requests and outside audit and warrants, posting and digital storing of official actions, resolutions and ordinances, preparation of Commission meeting minutes, public meeting notices to include electronic and newspaper references, the commission calendar and tax levies including outside agency support.”

Rather than fire the two senior staffers with years of institutional knowledge whose positions were listed in the budget reductions at the end of the year and who she considered critical to the operation of the clerk’s office, Thompson terminated two newer staffers. Because those employees earned less than the two staffers the commission slated to be eliminated from the clerk’s office budget, a budget shortfall exists in this year’s budget.

Because of the discrepancy, which some commissioners say is around $16,000 and Thompson said is about $12,000, Ridgeway said drastic measures had to be taken to rectify the insufficient funds that would have existed in payroll, which would have meant no paychecks could have been issued for county employees as of Nov. 9 until payroll funds were made whole.

Discussion on the matter

During Oct. 29 discussion at the County Commission meeting, Thompson said she was against potential pay cuts to her staff, adding the action was retaliation after she voted against salary increases for some elected officials and commissioners last year.

“My budget was then dangerously slashed. I lost two employees at Christmastime because I had to make some tough decisions,” she said.

Thompson also said by taking away some duties of the clerk’s office, the commission may have acted against the law because the clerk’s office is mandated to perform certain duties per the Missouri Constitution.

“I’m opposed to the pay cuts and continued targeting of my two remaining employees,” Thompson said.

Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte said targeting of specific employees in another elected official’s office before the holidays in 2017 was unconscionable.

Ridgeway said the blame for the issue was Thompson’s and no one else’s because she failed to comply with the 2018 budget for her office the commission approved. Ridgeway said Thompson has known all year she was over budget and something would need done, but she refused to do anything, expecting the commission to give her additional funds.

“It’s beholden to the officeholder to live within his or her means,” Ridgeway said. “... We now have to do what we need to not hold up pay for all other departments.”

Ridgeway said the removal of duties from Thompson’s office was not the result of revenge, but due to Thompson’s inability to correctly perform her job duties, which Ridgeway said left the county open to possible litigation.

A review of state statutes and what each office was statutorily mandated to do was done before the duties removed, with those taken away not being those mandated to the clerk’s office by the state, Ridgeway said.

Ridgeway said the commission had been reasonable, coming up with some of the funds needed to help offset the clerk’s budget, but she doesn’t agree with it.

“If we can’t get offices to live within their budget, we might as well walk away,” the commissioner said, adding letting an office operate outside of the budgetary confines set by the commission was a dangerous precedent to set.

Nolte said in taking away job duties of the clerk’s office and cutting staff and salaries, the commission is taking punitive action against the clerk’s office, seemingly for how Thompson voted on salary commission decisions last year.

“We’re reducing the ability for the clerk’s office to operate,” he said.

Nolte said the removal of duties such as being the custodian of record and transferring the job to an assistant county administrator is an attempt to centralize government at the administrative level and is wrong.

During Oct. 29 public comment, County Assessor Cathy Rinehart said she understands the commission is upset with how Thompson budgeted her spending, but the time to address the matter would have been at the end of last year, not 10 months into the following year, adding action by the commission amounts to commissioners telling other elected officeholders who they can and cannot employ. Telling the clerk she cannot keep two key office staffers is something commissioners do not allow others to do to them, Rinehart said, and something she would not want to happen to her or other elected officials.

“It’s way to much power. It’s an abuse of power and it’s shameful,” she said.

The county, Rinehart added, has more than enough money to cover the small amount of payroll funding needed.

Nolte said he and other commissioners are supposedly entitled to back pay as a result of action taking at the state level years ago to increase commissioner pay. While the state increased commissioner pay in the mid-2000s, many counties, including Clay, did not increase the salaries of commissioners and other elected officeholders, something addressed last year by the county salary commission. Nolte said he is refusing the more than $36,000 allotted him, which could be used to offset issues in the clerk’s budget.

Before initial approval of the ordinance that would have reduced clerk office employees salaries at the Oct. 29 meeting, Deputy Clerk Sandy Baldwin addressed the commission fighting back tears. Baldwin said neither she, nor any other member of the clerk’s office staff received a pay raise outside of a cost-of-living increase in multiple years, despite incurring more work with the loss of half of the office’s employees and other offices’ staff getting raises including assistant county administrators who received nearly $75,000 in combined pay raises this fall.

Baldwin said commissioners do not really know what duties are performed in the clerk’s office because some of the duties allegedly removed from her office were things the office never did or things, such as notarizing documents, that are still done daily by her and other clerk’s office staff.

Result

The shuffling of funds in the clerk’s budget, along with the transfer from the county’s rainy day fund, means no clerk’s office staffer’s salary will be negatively impacted.

While her staff’s salaries were on the line, Thompson’s salary of $77,389 was not as she is an elected official.

Managing Editor Amanda Lubinski can be reached at amanda.lubinski@mycouriertribune.com or 903-6001.

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