New hires spawn clerk, commission turf war

CHARLES TOWN – A hiring request last week by the county’s circuit clerk has developed into a clash with the County Commission over elected officers’ authority to determine employees’ salaries, with more than one commissioner suggesting layoffs are imminent if officers do not cooperate on setting pay.

[cleeng_content id="401478727" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]Circuit Clerk Laura Storm requested that the commission authorize her to hire two deputies for her office at a starting salary of $30,000 plus benefits, with the salaries coming out of the monies the commission has already appropriated to the Circuit Clerk’s Office.

“The money is within my budget,” she said. “I need no extra funds.”

Storm acknowledged that the county’s budget is currently stretched thin but said that her department was not the source of the problems.

Laura Storm

Laura Storm

“Your money issues are not within my department,” she said. “I’ve been very conscious, I’ve been very respectful of county money.”

But several county commissioners argued that Storm should present information about the prospective hires’ qualifications and prior experience.

“I’m just trying to figure out whether they meet our standards for background,” said Commissioner Lyn Widmyer, alluding to the salary schedule the commission now uses when hiring employees, which bases pay on job description, prior experience and other factors.

“They meet my criteria,” Storm shot back. “I am a duly elected officer. I run this office. That’s what I was elected to do, and I do a very successful job of it.”

She added that the prospective hires have “extensive experience” in government work and customer service.

Storm disputed whether they county’s salary schedule applies to the employees of elected officials, as opposed to those of commission-appointed department heads.

“The criteria that … has never been formally adopted or passed by any of us,” she said, though she added that she does “try to stay within those guidelines.”

“I made an informed management decision,” she said.

Commissioner Walt Pellish said it is within the purview of the commission to oversee the salaries of deputies of the elected officers.

“I recognize your authority,” he said. “I also recognize that the County Commission has a responsibility to the citizens of this county to administer all salaries on an equitable basis, based on the responsibilities of those positions. And we have established salary grades, salary ranges.

“I do not think we are the least bit out of line asking to see the resumés, the qualifications and the justification to bring them in at this level. And if you’re not willing to share that, I’m not willing to support the hiring.”

Storm responded pointedly, saying: “That’s not within your legal authority to review my staff, sir. That’s my job.”

Commissioner Patsy Noland said that she thought the proposed starting salaries were too high. She pointed out that the new hires would require $12,600 each in benefits from the county’s benefits package.

“We have to be able to manage our budget, and we have to be able to count on cooperation on the part of all the elected officials and department heads,” she said. “What’s going to happen in the future is, if we don’t get cooperation from the elected officials, we’re not going to have a choice but to look at those benefits. We’re going to have to recover some of that somewhere. So we’re either going to have to consider reducing the benefits – and they’ll have to pay more out of their pocket – or people are going to have to be on board.”

Commissioner Dale Manuel echoed her sentiments.

“I know that you have autonomy over your own office and so forth, but if we don’t get cooperation from the elected [officers], coming out of this budget crisis is going to be even more ugly,” he said. “Without your help in your budgets, it’s going to be more brutal and a lot of very, very unpleasant decisions are going to have to be made.”

Commissioner Jane Tabb made the most dire predictions of all, saying that county staff reductions are likely in coming months.

“The facts are before us very plainly. We’re probably going to have to cut staff,” she said. “Nobody wants to say that out loud, but unless we are very cautious with our salaries, benefits will probably be cut first and then staff. Not only outside agencies: core staff. It’s an ugly picture.”

Tabb predicted that the commission would also have to cut the budgets of elected officials.

“You may have [funds for the salaries] in your budget this year,” she said. “It probably won’t be there next year.”

Widmyer said she would like County Administrator Debbie Keyser to review the resumés of the new employees to determine where they fell on they commission’s salary schedule.

Storm argued that was an abridgment of her authority as an elected officer.

“I’m not bringing their resumé to you. I’m not going do that. This is my job to do, commissioner,” she said. “I will not release my authority [over] who I can hire or fire to anybody, nor do I have to, by code, talk with somebody else to see if I’m right.”

“I’m not going to have [Keyser] double-check my work,” she said.

Manuel, as president of the commission, made a motion to approve the new hires at $30,000. It died for lack of a second.

Widmyer then moved that the two be hired at a salary level to be determined by the commission’s salary schedule. The motion passed unanimously.

But Storm said she would not go along with hiring the deputies in that fashion.

“I will not be producing a resumé,” she said. “I have the legal authority to do this.”

The hiring and establishment of salaries for the deputies of elected officials is regulated by section 7-7-7 of the W.Va. Code.

It states that elected officials can hire deputies “by and with the advice and consent of the county commission.”

It also establishes the procedure for determining a deputy’s salary. It states that elected officers shall present the commission with a proposed budget by March 2. The commission is then to produce a budget which fixes “the total mount of money to be expended by the county for the ensuing fiscal year.”

Finally, it states that “[county elected officials] shall then fix the compensation of their assistants, deputies and employees based on the total mount of money designated for expenditure by their respective offices by the county commission.”[/cleeng_content]

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