MANSFIELD -- Richland County commissioners unanimously approved pay increases Tuesday for the lowest paid Juvenile Court employees -- a vote that followed a contentious discussion with court officials.
The pay hikes to a minimum of $15 per hour for deputy clerks and detention center workers will cost an additional $45,794 for the remainder of 2022, according to court administrator Brian Bumpus.
Bumpus and Judge Steve McKinley came to commissioners with the request on April 19, telling the board the pay increases were necessary to retain current staff and attract new employees.
In April, Bumpus said turnover among the 29 employees in the two areas was trending between 75 and 80 percent annually since the start of the year, which he attributed to a starting wage of $14 per hour.
Commissioners on Tuesday didn't argue over the increases for the lowest-paid workers.
But they asked many questions about the highest-paid Juvenile Court employees, including three top administrators who will earn a combined $271,169 in 2022.
In April, the three-member panel asked why the court leaders didn't address the issue through the $5 million budget they approved for 2022 for the court and its detention system. That figure, including the detention facility, constitutes 13 percent of the county's general fund budget this year, commissioners said.
Last fall, commissioners suggested court leaders provide lump-sum bonuses to higher-paid employees and allocate more funds to boost the lower-paid workers. Instead, the court approved largely 3-percent increases across the board, according to Bumpus.
Bumpus disputed the notion the highest salaries were out of line and that they were "comparable" to counties of similar size, including Delaware, Medina, Greene and Clark.
In addition, under the Ohio Constitution and separation of powers, McKinley told commissioners they do not have authority to determine salaries for his court employees.
"(Commissioners) have the most interest, in discussions that we have had, the greatest interest expressed to me has been what the highest-paid folks are paid. That's where I am most concerned regarding the whole separation of powers issue ... that there isn't any attempt to dictate the salaries of those individuals," the judge said.
McKinley told commissioners he wanted to ensure his employees are "adequately compensated" to ensure staff stability and better care for young people in the court's care.
Commissioner Darrell Banks took issue with the judge and his administrator as interruptions frequently occurred during the conversation.
"You're in our court now. Let us talk," Banks said at one point. "If you gave your (highest paid) employees only a 2.5-percent raise, you would have enough money to give more (to the lowest paid).
"I think you have enough money. I just don't think you're using it wisely," Banks said.
McKinley replied, "I disagree."
Commissioner Tony Vero said commissioners recognize they don't have a right to set court salaries or salaries for any elected official. However, he suggested if McKinley believes he has employees below the market level for wages that he could also have employees above the market level.
McKinley said, "That's where I don't think you can get into proposing a fixed amount of pay. The whole lump sum concept involves the fixing of income. You're proposing it for higher-end employees and I think that's what crosses the line regarding the separation of powers."
Banks and Vero said McKinley and Bumpus were not using comparable counties in their salary analysis.
Vero said Wayne County was the most comparable to Richland and also told the duo they didn't include any of the counties adjacent to Richland in their salary analysis.
"Delaware County is the richest county in Ohio," Vero said. "I think it's disingenuous to present selected comparable counties that skew the true and accurate comps for Richland County."
Bumpus said Richland County Juvenile Court is busier than adjacent counties, some of which also don't have juvenile detention facilities.
Near the end of the discussion, Vero said, "This is just going nowhere," and made a motion to increase the pay for the employees at the lowest-end of the court pay scale.
In response to a media question, Banks said the court's salary decisions could lead to "contentious" 2023 budget discussions with commissioners this fall.
Commissioner Cliff Mears said commissioners need "better tools" in terms of updated, comparable salary structures going into the 2023 budget talks.
McKinley said, "The commissioners are the ones who set the total (salary) line item. It's the court who has the responsibility, once it has that total line-item figure, to determine how to allocate that line item among its employees."
If the two sides disagree on the court's budget request, Vero pointed out judges can submit budget requests "by court order" and that commissioners could then challenge that order in an appellate court or perhaps the Ohio Supreme Court.
"This is where I have issue with the law. A court decides a court's request," Vero said. "But it's the system we have and I follow the law. It falls on whether the request is reasonable and necessary."
McKinley said a court's proposed budget is "presumed to be reasonable" and that commissioners would have to demonstrate "it's unreasonable."
The judge agreed to include his court staff in the next round of wage scale studies being done by commissioners, providing "it's with the understanding that court is not bound to it strictly."