Magistrate pay, hours stymie Hamilton County Commission

Magistrate pay, hours stymie Hamilton County Commission

October 19th, 2012 by Kate Harrison Belz in Local Regional News

Hamilton County Commissioners during a commission meeting in this file photo.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Larry Ables, Hamilton County's chief magistrate.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

A question of whether one county employee was due about $2,000 in unpaid leave ended up dominating the Hamilton County Commission's meeting this week and resulted in stricter time-clock rules for magistrates.

The commission ventured into uncharted territory Wednesday when it considered a resolution to allow Chief Magistrate Larry Ables to collect 787 hours worth of paid leave at his current salaried rate before he steps down to a position with a lower pay grade this November.

Magistrates set bonds and sign warrants at an office in the Hamilton County Jail.

Earlier this month, the commission voted to keep Ables in the office another year, but also to promote Magistrate Randy Russell to Able's supervisory position. That means Ables would be paid $5,000 less than what his salary has been since 2008.

So Ables asked the Human Resource Department if it would be possible to cash in his unpaid vacation and sick leave, which is usually granted to county employees at the rate of pay they've reached by retirement.

Ables said he never knew the issue would reach the commission agenda and said he never meant to cause a public dispute.

"I asked the question not to be difficult, just to ask for resolution, since I will technically be losing part of my pay," he said. "I'm not sure how this becomes a County Commission issue -- it seemed like it was just a personnel issue."

It is a County Commission issue because of the complicated structure that oversees the magistrate's office.

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

So when the questions of Ables' pay arose, there was no precedent for how to deal with it.

"This is my biggest headache since I've been a commissioner. One word: Magistrates," Commissioner Fred Skillern said during Wednesday's meeting.

Commissioners said they wanted to pay Ables what he was due, but they felt uncomfortable moving quickly with an unfamiliar issue.

"We are varying what we do [with other county employees] by entering into this resolution," said Commissioner Jim Fields. "I don't think I'll support it."

Others were wary of approving hours without further verification because Ables makes his own schedule.

"Seven hundred eighty-seven hours looks like this employee never took a day off in five years," said Commissioner Tim Boyd. "He's not taken a day off? Do we have any verification of this, chairman?"

Human Resources Director Leslie Longshore said that it was possible Ables had accrued a higher number of hours in the years he worked at the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office before becoming a magistrate.

The commission voted 6-3 against granting Ables' request, though they agreed to take the issue up again later when they had better verification from Human Resources regarding the hours in question. Commission Chairman Larry Henry, who is Ables' uncle, also voted against the request.

In the meantime, the commission decided unanimously to move the magistrates to a new Web-based time system that will be stricter on hours. Other county departments have begun using the system.

"I'm tired of three-hour lunch breaks and going to civic events on county time," Skillern charged during the meeting.

Longshore said aligning the magistrates on the new system would prevent the commission from having to deal with matters of payroll in the future.

"This is the first step in the right direction, so we won't have these kinds of questions," she said.