Chesterton Tribune



Judges get tough seek pay hikes for court staff

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The Porter County Council is never short of requests from department heads saying that their employees should get pay increases to reward them for the work they are doing.

Those raises haven’t been approved in the last three years and a number of County Superior Court Judges feel the time has come for that to change for their offices, and one judge even said he would exercise his statutory authority to mandate those raises if the Council does not appropriate them.

At Wednesday’s Council budget meeting, Judge William Alexa was the first to express frustration, saying that his budget has changed very little over the past 10 years but his staff has to carry heavier workloads.

“These are not county employees, these are court employees, a third branch of government,” he asserted, as he proposed moderate salary raises in his budget.

The Council however put aside the salary bumps, as they have with all other budgets during their budget sessions, and will take them up once they finish second readings after seeing how the County’s coffers fare at that point.

Alexa said he was not pleased about recent proposal to nearly double health care deductibles in a new insurance plan for next year, while withholding salary raises. He acknowledged that the effort was to try to save money, but said it is being done “on the backs” of employees.

“What’s it going to do? It probably means people won’t go in for routine physical maintenance,” Alexa said.

County Council member Dan Whitten, D-At Large, replied that the reconfiguration of the health insurance plan was a matter decided by the County Commissioners, not the Council, and he does not agree with that method of netting savings, nor would he have voted for it.

Using his budget request as an example, Alexa said that if the County Council allows raises of $1,000 to all court staff across the six courts, the amount would be around $40,000.

“That’s less than some of your consultants you pay for,” he said.

All seven Council members voted to approve Alexa’s budget at $156,411 with the raises taken out on second reading.

Next, Superior Court Judge David Chidester’s budget that aimed to increase his secretary’s budget from $28,300 to the tune of $30,000.

Chidester said he’s had problems finding someone to fill the position because the pay is set so low.

“That’s not a livable salary. Nobody wants to work for $28,500,” he said.

Chidester said that if the Council passes on raises, he has the option under state law of filing a mandate to get the money needed to keep the courts operating efficiently.

“It (the mandate) is coming fast and it’s coming from Judge Chidester real fast,” he said.

Whitten was upset by the remark which he perceived to be an accusation that he and his colleagues did not care about the employees.

“For someone to say that is like a slap in the face,” he said.

Whitten said he has been a proponent of raises for a number of years, knowing the value of each individual employee. He said the Council needs to take into account all other budgets and hopes the employees can understand that.

“We’re all in this thing together,” he said.

Chidester told the Tribune after the meeting his intent was not to threaten the Council but to make them aware of the judges’ needs. The mandate would be a last resort since it would mean a hefty amount of legal fees for the County of about $100,000, he said.

The Council continued to approve court budgets with judges alluding to their shared feelings about raises.

“I don’t disagree with what has been said,” said Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Thode after the Council approved his budget.

“Nobody up here disagrees with what was said,” Council President Bob Poparad, D-At Large, told Thode and said the Council hopes it can give out raises.

Council member Sylvia Graham, D-At Large, expressed her sympathy for the workers a few times during the meeting.

“Everybody’s work is valued,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Council did approve 7-0 a restructured budget proposed by Circuit Court Judge Mary Harper that was slashed heavily in places to make room for a new full-time executive assistant position in her office with a salary of $30,145. Harper’s 2014 budget was approved at $477,960 which is less than what was approved for this year at $516,000.

This was the first instance a new full-time position was created in the 2014 budget sessions, with the exception of an assistant in the Commissioners’ office who was promoted from part-time to full-time to serve as the County’s purchasing agent.

The County Juvenile Detention Department budget also won approval of $30,000 in contractual money for a coordinator of the new Safe Schools Commission, which had been paid out of the Commissioners’ county income tax funds.

Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, favored the move saying it is important to free up the CEDIT funding which the Council plans to use to help fund operations at the jail and elsewhere.

Another discussion Wednesday centered around changes in the state code regarding criminal offenders and correctional programs which take effect next July.

Poparad asked adult probation director Steve Meyer if there would need to be more work release programs and what the magnitude of the impact would be, if it would be phased in gradually or all at once.

Meyer said that is “a tough question” but it is something his department is working on with the County Corrections program.

Harper said there is a demographic change in criminal cases seen recently in Porter County where there are more offenders with multiple felony charges but the County has the benefit of a “great probation team that works well together.”

Council member Jim Biggs, R-1st, said it is “critical” that County officials continue to “keep on top of this” so it will be ready when the changes take effect.

Other highlights

-- The Council approved 7-0 the election board’s budget which will see a major increase in 2014 for the countywide mid-term elections.

An additional $201,200 was appropriated for personal services to pay poll workers and other services on Election Day and another $265,000 to supplies and equipment for purchasing and printing ballots.

“I think that’s called the price of democracy,” Poparad said.

-- County Council members voted 7-0 to decrease their own salaries by $1,000 each member in their own budget. Regular members were previously paid $14,895 while the President was paid $15,895.

-- The auditor’s non-reverting fund budget was cut by the Council to $265,000 from the proposed $410,000 which will be used for further crackdown on homestead credit violations. County Auditor Bob Wichlinski said if he needed more funds he would come before the Council again to ask for it.

-- The Council will meet tonight at 5 p.m. inside the County Administration Building to review the Sheriff’s and Jail Budgets. Poparad said final reading for the 2014 budgets will be at the Council’s regular meeting on Oct. 22.




Posted 10/3/2013