Thomas Ray, President of the Orange County Employees Association, appeared before the court Monday morning to discuss the topic main of last week’s meeting, the salaries for the county judge and county sheriff. 

In last week’s meeting, Precinct 1 Commissioner David Dubose asked the court to add $20,000 to the sheriff’s salary and as well as the county judge’s. It was voted to keep the current pay matrix system intact and allow Sheriff Keith Merritt to retain some of his constable service time. The court voted to raise Sheriff Merritt’s salary by approximately $13,000, but that isn’t official until the proposed budget is adopted.  The commissioners agreed to reexamine the pay matrix and handle the county judge’s salary next year.

“I want to make clearly important, I am speaking on behalf of myself and our union,” Ray said. “I am not speaking on behalf for Judge [Carl] Thibodeaux or Sheriff Merritt.”

“In looking at the current salaries for county judge and sheriff, they are pretty far away from the fair market value,” he said. Ray went on to explain that the judge and sheriff for Orange County are the third lowest paid when weighed against comparable counties. “If you look at the same comparable counties that are costal that have to deal with FEMA, hurricanes and natural disasters, they are both the second lowest paid,” Ray stated.  

Ray expressed his support, and the support of the union, if the commissioners could bring the judge’s and sheriff’s salary closer to the fair market value. The $20,000 pay increase for each position wouldn’t put them where they ought to be according to their times of service, but it would get them closer to it. He explained the county judge should make approximately $114,000 and the sheriff should make approximately $104,000.  “When I say they are the second and third lowest paid, I’m talking significantly low,” he said.  “Over $40,000 lower than some of these other comparable sheriffs and county judges.” 

Under the current pay matrix, when a newly elected sheriff comes into office, he or she would start out at approximately $75,000 while a newly elected chief deputy would start out at roughly $96,000.  “The county judge and the sheriff are the two largest department heads,” Ray said.  Ray felt that their salaries should reflect their years of service in those positions. 
Ray suggested the commissioners fix the matrix system by coming up with a comparable percentage above the chief deputy that they think the sheriff should make and a comparable percentage that a judge should make above the sheriff.

Ray explained to the court that there is enough money in the proposed budget to give both the sheriff and the county judge a pay raise. “The time is right, we have the money now,” Ray said. “We don’t know what the future holds, we know that economy hadn’t been the best, but I would bet our financial stability in this county against, not only those in these comparable counties, but any county.”

Judge Thibodeaux went on to explain that the proposed budget has to be published in the newspaper fourteen days before it can be adopted.  The only way to change the budget now is if there was actual, numerical mistakes. “The purpose of having the salaries posted in the paper is so the public can have a chance to come in and protest the elected officials salaries,” Thibodeaux said.

Doug Manning, Assistant County Attorney, added “the statue says before the tenth day before the date of the budget meeting, the commissioners must publish in a newspaper, or a general circulation in the county, a notice of the salaries, expenses or allowances that are proposed to be increased and the amount of the proposed increases.”
“The question today is whether or not changing [the salaries] and republishing that would constitute as substantial compliance with the statute,” Manning said.  “We don’t have any guidance one way or another.”  Manning went on to say that “I’m not prepared to say conclusively that we have substantial compliance [with the Attorney General’s office].”

Ray explained that he felt that the county would be within substantial compliance because there is no intent of malice or defrauding of the taxpayers.  “We’re not discussing a factor that is greater than what was originally discussed,” he said.

Manning agreed with everything Ray had said.  “I believe there is wiggle room, but the court has to make the ultimate decision.”
“I agree with much of what he [Ray] had to say, but given the uncertainty that might be there, let’s stay where we are and work on these things next year,” Precinct 3 Commissioner John Dubose said. 

The court took no action on the the item.

Hurricane Ike

Jeff Kelley, Emergency Management Coordinator, informed the court that his office has been going over project worksheets with FEMA.  He found out Monday morning that FEMA’s construction estimates were at least $200,000 under what they should have been but he assured the court that there’s movement in the right direction.

Court looks into banning “Spice”

Precinct 2 Commissioner Owen Burton talked about a new substance that has become an increasing problem.  He explained that his substance called “spice” is ten to fifteen times more potent than marijuana.   “Cities are passing ordinances.  It seems like if it is important enough for cities to outlaw this ‘spice,’ then the county ought to be working  on it,” Burton said.

Sheriff Merritt added that “it’s becoming an increasing problem because it wasn’t illegal.
Now some cities are having a problem with it and the after effects.”  He went on to explain that “spice” is made up of everyday household chemicals.

Judge Thibodeaux has asked Sheriff Merritt and Manning to work on this issue to see what kind of statutory backup the county will get from the state legislature.  “I’ve go no problem passing some sort of rules and regulations against it,” he said.  “It’s just whether or not we can.

Grateful Citizen

Tommy Thompson, an Orange County citizen, spoke during the open court session about how he is concerned where his tax dollars are going. “I’m very happy with what I am receiving from the Orange County government with the taxes I am paying.  I support the decisions that have been made, I support the wage increases.”  He urged the court to fix the problems with the pay matrix and thanked them for their service to Orange County.

About Nicole Gibbs

Editor of The Record Newspapers