Council approves funding change for circuit court
By Stephanie Taylor Ferriell, Senior Staff Writer, [email protected]
Crawford Circuit Court Judge Sabrina Bell has struggled for the past year to fill positions in her office. She has told county council members Crawford County’s pay rate is simply too far below what other area counties pay to keep qualified employees.
At the Sept. 14 council meeting, Bell asked the council to approve a funding plan that would use a grant the court received for a treatment court to fund the court reporter position.
“I found alternate funding,” Bell said. “I’m not asking for more; I want to rearrange some.”
She said she has found a person to work 29 hours per week at an annual rate of $30,000. This person would not be on the county insurance, which would be a cost savings for the county.
Bell said this would mean her office would have two full-time employees with insurance and two part-time without it.
The council approved Bell’s request 5-1-1 with Bill Breeding opposing and Craig Menke abstaining.
Breeding spoke about his concern regarding pauper attorney fees, saying “they’re killing us. I’d like to have something done about it.”
Bell said the public defenders didn’t renew their contracts, leaving the county with no attorneys on contract. Again, she said, the low pay rate is the issue.
“We are the lowest paid in the state,” she said, noting the county is eligible for reimbursement of 40% of those salaries.
Citing Martin County as a comparable example, Bell said Martin has four public defenders who are each paid $42,000 annually. Crawford County pays two positions at $35,000 each.
“Once again, they’re overworked and underpaid,” she said. “We have to make it worth their while. … My hands are pretty much tied.”
The council took no action on the public defender issue.
The council heard a presentation from financial adviser Elaine Beatty concerning retirement for sheriff’s deputies.
She said the merit board, sheriff and employees have been meeting to examine pension benefits and discuss how they might be enhanced to attract quality new hires while also keeping seasoned deputies.
“When you’re competing with other agencies with better pay and benefits, it’s hard,” said Beatty.
She explained the state mandated pension requirements beginning in 1988. There are some aspects required by law, while counties have leeway to offer additional benefits.
Beatty said the recommendation from the department is to increase the number of years of service required to be eligible for a benefit. Currently, it’s eight years and the suggested change is to 10. This would eliminate age 55 being the benchmark for retirement, which has resulted in some people receiving a pension with only a few years of service.
“If you don’t have 10 years in, you don’t get a benefit,” she said.
Another change the department would like to see concerns the pre-retirement death benefit. Currently, if an officer dies, the benefit is transferred to his/her spouse. However, if he/she is not married, the benefit is forfeited.
Officers would like that changed so that the benefit goes to the deputy’s designated beneficiary, be that a spouse, child or other person or charitable organization.
Beatty explained the county pays into the retirement program annually, with the amount determined by an actuary. That money is invested so that the returns will fund the pension program.
She said the changes the department would like to see would increase the annual cost by about $29,000, from $85,000 to $114,000.
Breeding said he is definitely in favor of changing the payout requirement to years of service rather than it being age 55 as it is currently. He said there are currently several former employees who are receiving small sums from the pension plan even though they only worked for the county one or two years.
“This will do away with that,” he said.
If the changes are adopted, the pension plan would have to be amended. The council took no action, tabling the matter for further review.