By Dave Rogers

For The Record

John Tarver, Chief Deputy for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, thought he’d heard it all, until Tuesday.

“I’ve been called a lot of things in my 40-year career,” the veteran lawman said, “but, until today, never a benchmark.”

Tarver’s salary, at least, was the benchmark Orange County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton used to put together a new proposed salary increase for 18 elected officials that was a big hit at Tuesday’s commissioners’ court meeting.

It would cost the county $200,000 per year in base salary, a $25,000 hike over the first proposal from July, and an average raise of 13.5 percent per official.

Carlton pointed out unelected, non-union county employees had received 9.5 percent in raises, including a 5 percent raise proposed for the 2018 budget, since elected officials have had a raise.

The pay hike cannot happen until details have been posted for 10 days, an opportunity for public input and another vote by the court as it finalizes its 2017-18 budget ahead of an Oct. 1 deadline.

It received tentative support by the court Tuesday – a 3-1 vote with Commissioner Jody Crump voting against and Commissioner Barry Burton absent — and nothing but praise from elected officials present, including Sheriff Keith Merritt.

The sheriff had objected to the court’s first try to give elected officials their first pay raise in nine years because it left him earning less than his chief deputy, Tarver.

That proposed raise was voted down last week, with the longest-tenured members of commissioners’ court (also the ones up for re-election) – Carlton, Crump and Burton – voting against the motion to approve the raise made by Commissioner John Gothia and seconded by Commissioner Johnny Trahan.

Because all of the sheriff’s office employees are paid under a separate pay scale than the sheriff – a collective bargaining agreement between their union and the county, Merritt had seen his deputies’ pay increase when his hadn’t.

“I absolutely believe the sheriff should be making more money than the folks that work for him,” Tarver said Tuesday afternoon.

“I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do, to put him above all of his employees in salary.”

Carlton said that’s how he figured increases, basing everyone’s salary off a “baseline” of $104,000 a year. That figure, the judge explained, was a tick above a 5 percent pay raise for Tarver, which is the amount the county has offered deputies during ongoing contract talks.

That $104,000 was where he set the sheriff’s salary, then the proposed county judge salary was set 1 percent above the sheriff’s, at $105,400.

Salaries for the district clerk, county clerk, tax assessor-collector and treasurer, were set at 75 percent of the base line — $78,000 – with everybody else – commissioners, justices of the peace and constables at 70 percent, or $72,800.

The judge’s plan did away with separate cell phone and automobile allowances for the 18 people affected and it will put constables back into their own cars, with prior insurance concerns ironed out.

As was the case with the first proposed elected official pay raise, Carlton and Burton said they’d defer a raise, if they got it, until 2019, if they were re-elected.

Without taking a raise, Carlton will continue to earn less than at least two unelected department heads he oversees.

Management Information Systems Director Lisa Reeves was paid $97,900 in fiscal year 2015-16, county engineer Clark Slacum earned $92,600 and Carlton $88,800.

“It’s a good day. It really is,” Constable Mark Philpott said. “It lifts my morale up a lot. It’s just a better day.”

Tax Assessor-Collector Karen Fisher had always said she’d accept no raise unless her office’s workers also got one.

“For the raises you’re proposing for all these employees, thank you,” she said. “Ya’ll are showing the employees you appreciate them. That’s all we wanted.

“I know without my ladies I cannot do my job.”

Carlton returned the compliment.

“We can’t do it without any of you guys,” he said.

“We’ve had some hard times, and I know sometimes it can come across to people like they’re not appreciated. That was never our intent.

“It was a matter of what we can afford without having to go to the taxpayers and raising their rate.”

County sets flat proposed tax rate

Commissioners voted 4-0 Tuesday to adopt a proposed rate for 2017-18 that would be the same or lower than the 54.4 cents per $100 taxable value the county has operated with the past three years.

Tax Assessor-Collector Karen Fisher said the effective tax rate, the tax rate required to bring the county the same amount of income as the 2016-17 year, is 52.365 cents per $100 value. She said because of higher valuations and new properties the total tax values in the county was up $131 million over last year.

Carlton pointed out that the tax rate must be posted and two public hearings are set for 1 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 12 and 6 p.m., Friday, Sept. 15 for public discussion before a final vote is taken on the tax rate.

While it can be set lower than 54.4 cents per $100, it cannot go higher than the posted amount.

CBA negotiations come up short

Negotiations for a new work agreement between Orange County and its sheriff’s deputies came up short Tuesday night.

Deputies had announced in the last meeting a demand for a 7 percent pay hike. The county countered Tuesday with an offer for a 5 percent raise for 2017-18, followed by a 2 percent hike for 2018-19.

After a break, Greg Cagle, attorney for the Sheriff’s Office Employees Association, said he had been authorized to accept a 6 percent pay hike.

The county, represented by Carlton, Crump and Fort Worth attorney Bettye Lynn, refused to go to a 6-percent increase.

Prior to the CBA meeting, Carlton, Crump and Lynn met in executive session with Orange County’s other three commissioners, Burton, Gothia and Trahan, regarding the CBA.

“That’s our last offer,” Cagle said.

Carlton refused to give up.

“We’ll have another executive session and see where we are,” the judge said. “We’re not willing to give up at this time.”

“Call me,” Cagle said.