MANSFIELD -- Richland County Juvenile Court Judge Steve McKinley on Friday put county commissioners on notice regarding future discussions about his budget and the salaries paid to court employees.
"The Court hereby puts the Commissioners on notice that should the Board, in any future meeting with the Court, conduct its business in a derogatory or otherwise unprofessional manner; or attempt to pursue Court budget matters which are outside of the Board's lawful authority, this Court will immediately terminate the budget discussions and order its budget," McKinley said in a four-page letter delivered to commissioners.
The judge's letter, shared with Richland Source, came in response to recent meetings with commissioners regarding court employee salaries.
On May 20, commissioners accused court administrator Brian Bumpus of providing them "seriously misleading" information about wages paid in other counties.
They warned that going forward, Bumpus will need to provide them in advance with any information he plans to present during a meeting.
McKinley, in his letter, labeled commissioners' claims to be "erroneous" and accused commissioners of "unprofessional conduct" during recent budget discussions, singling out board Chairman Tony Vero.
"The Chairman's allegations are completely erroneous, and are being made in an attempt to justify imposing the Commissioners' wage scale on the Court's lead staff, which is impermissible under Ohio law," McKinley wrote.
In a written response, Vero said the local juvenile court employs two court administrators at or near six-figure salaries.
"This is unprecedented across the State of Ohio from research conducted by this Office and presented by the Court himself," Vero wrote.
"It is our legal obligation under the Ohio Revised Code to review and approve all County budgets paid for by the taxpayers," Vero wrote. "Judge McKinley has yet to provide justification to the taxpayers of this County for such high salaries.
"Issuing a four-page letter on a Friday afternoon over Memorial Day weekend instead of a professional discussion in an open, public meeting further demonstrates his lack of justification to the taxpayers of Richland County," Vero wrote.
In his letter, McKinley cited a case decided by the Ohio Supreme Court (Dellick v Sherlock) that said a court's funding orders are presumed reasonable and commissioners must "rebut the presumption in order to justify its non-compliance with these orders."
He said the Supreme Court ruling "emanates from the separation-of-powers doctrine because courts must be free from excessive control by other governmental branches to ensure their independence and autonomy.
McKinley said, based on that ruling, a judge's opinion is sufficient to justify an increase in salaries unless commissioners are able to prove otherwise.
"In effect, the Commissioners are not allowed to micromanage the Court's budget by attempting to fix the salaries of particular employees," McKinley wrote.
In his letter, the judge went point-by-point regarding recent meetings between he and Bumpus with commissioners, during which the court sought to obtain pay increases for the lowest-paid employees -- clerks and detention workers.
They said the starting wages for these employees needed to be raised to $15 per hour, up from $14, to help in attraction and retention of workers. Commissioners ultimately granted the increases on May 17.
The unanimous vote followed a session with McKinley and Bumpus that was contentious at times, largely stemming from the fact the court has three administrators making a combined $271,169 in 2022.
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.
Commissioner Darrell Banks took issue with the judge and his administrator during the May 17 meeting 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.
In his letter, McKinley said each county has courts set up differently in terms of positions and staffing, leading to differences in wages. He pointed out his court administrator has been with the court for 23 years and the assistant court administrator has been there 29 years.
He said these positions were in place well before he took office.
"There is no legitimate factual basis for the Board's erroneous conclusions and irresponsible public statements impugning the integrity of the Court," McKinley wrote.
"Despite the Commissioners' mantra that they are not attempting to set the salaries of Juvenile Court employees or to otherwise micromanage the Court's internal business, it is obvious that that is precisely what they are attempting to do," McKinley wrote.
"This is what Ohio law prohibits, under the Supreme Court's decision in Dellick."
The judge said he respect the commissioners' office and "intends to continue conducting the Court's business before the Board in a professional and congenial matter."
"However, having said this, and in light of the Court's recent experience with the Board, the Court no longer has confidence that the Board members will reciprocate in like fashion," McKinley wrote.