published Saturday, January 5th, 2013

Hamilton County denies longevity pay for magistrate

Larry Ables, Hamilton County's chief magistrate.
Larry Ables, Hamilton County's chief magistrate.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Hamilton County magistrates' pay and benefits once again came under the County Commission's microscope this week as commissioners questioned what benefits are appropriate for the position.

The Hamilton County Commission voted unanimously to deny longevity pay for Magistrate Larry Ables, who has been trying since last fall to resolve a number of pay and benefits issues in his contract.

Longevity pay is granted to Hamilton County employees after their first five years of service. But the magistrate position does not fall under the county's employee handbook guidelines, argued Commissioner Joe Graham.

"We have to re-elect these positions every year. So I don't personally see how anyone can build longevity pay since it's just a one-year job," Graham said. Magistrates' contracts need to be clarified, he said.

Ables has been a magistrate -- setting bonds and signing warrants at the Hamilton County Jail -- since 2007, and has been chief magistrate since 2008. The commission voted last October to keep Ables as magistrate for another year, but also chose Magistrate Randy Russell to replace Ables in the supervisory position, prompting a number of questions about how benefits carried over in the position.

The commission has had to take on the awkward task of resolving recent specific benefits dilemmas because of the complicated magistrates structure.

Magistrates hold their contracts solely with the County Commission and do not fall under the purview of general county government.

But the magistrates technically are supervised by the state, and the commission handles no day-to-day oversight of the magistrates office beyond appointing new ones each year. There has been no real precedent for how to deal with the questions involving magistrates' benefits.

The commission has already debated pay issues for Ables. In October, they mulled over whether to pay Ables about $2,000 in paid leave that he said he earned at the salaried rate he had as chief magistrate, which makes a higher salary than magistrate.

Commissioners ultimately decided not to grant Ables' request, and ended up passing stricter time-clock rules for magistrates.

Several weeks ago, Ables returned to the commission to appeal for them to pay what he said he was owed from his former position. But the commission has not taken any further action on the matter.

Ables has said he believes the benefits and pay issues are personnel matters and said he never thought they would have become subject to public argument during commission meetings.

The position has an annual salary of $58,000, with the chief magistrate paid an additional $5,000.

At Wednesday's meeting, Commissioner Greg Beck said the recent dilemmas have prompted him to question the magistrate program as a whole.

"I think this recent situation with Mr. Ables has opened up a lot of questions in my mind about the structure of the program, the benefits of the program and then somewhere down the line you start thinking about the worth of the program," he said.

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