Orange County commissioners argued salaries of elected officials at a meeting Monday, Sept. 9. Among hotly debated items from the meeting were the sheriff’s pay rate and position on the Matrix system used by Orange County for salary calculation, and the removal of a $15,000 supplement from the county to district judges’ salaries.
Sheriff’s place in the Matrix
The Matrix system charts county salaries and divides officials into terms based on the longevity of service. The system determines pay rates and pay raises. According to Orange County Judge Carl Thibodeaux, who presides over the commissioners court, the salaries must be approved by Sept. 23 and must first be published. He said the salaries would remain the same as last year with the exception of pay increases for longevity, as the calculations stood Sept. 9.
Orange County Sheriff Keith Merritt is serving his second term as sheriff but was a constable previously, another elected law enforcement position. Merritt said when he became sheriff, he was allowed to carry over his time as a constable because they are both elected law enforcement positions. That means, with approximately 20 years of service to the county and having been elected to five terms of office, he should be on term 5 of the Matrix, but is only considered term 3 at this time.
Merritt addressed commissioners at the meeting as they discussed the agenda item pertaining to the salaries and the Matrix.
“I’ve come before the court for the last two years to address my salary, and not exactly my salary but my placement in the Matrix,” Merritt began. “All I’ve asked for the last two years, and this will be the third year, is for me to be put on the Matrix where I am supposed to be.”
Merritt said he sent each commissioner a letter Feb. 4 requesting private meetings to explain discrepancies in his pay with each person on the court. He said he did not receive a response, but he approached each individually and spoke to them about the issue. Merritt said they all agreed he was not where he should be on the Matrix.
“I’m not asking for anything that no one else is getting,” Merritt asserted. “I am not complaining about the amount of my salary one bit. The only thing I am deeply concerned about is that I have three employees at the sheriff’s department that make more money than the sheriff.”
“Nobody is where they are supposed to be (on the Matrix),” Judge Thibodeaux responded.
“Well, what I will say is there is no other elected official, there is no other department head in Orange County, where their employees make more money than they do,” Merritt said.
Thibodeaux suggested raising Merritt up to at least fourth term, but Merritt said his chief deputy would still top the sheriff’s pay.
“Sheriff, I am not making you fifth term,” Thibodeaux fired back. “I’d like to take a look at something we can look at, and that will be the fourth term.”
Merritt said he was told in 2011 that he “fell through the cracks” of the system, but that the error would be corrected when possible. He mentioned the freeze of salaries of elected officials in 2012 and said that he agreed with that measure to help the county budget but wanted to be placed on the higher tier as discussed. If he were where he should be on the Matrix, he said he would not be approaching them about a raise at all because he would already be where he was supposed to be.
“I do think you are taking a step in the right direction,” Merritt said regarding Thibodeaux’s suggestion of moving him to fourth term pay.
“As another elected official I don’t have any employees making more money than I do,” Orange County Clerk Karen Jo Vance stood up and said. “I don’t think it’s fair that an elected official in Orange County makes less than his employees. … That’s just not right.”
Thibodeaux suggested a motion to raise the sheriff’s position on the Matrix to fourth term, but the measure died with no support from commissioners.
A concerned citizen and retired justice of the peace for Orange County after about 20 years of service, Flo Edgerly said she thinks the sheriff deserves to be promoted on the Matrix.
“I am not understanding why Orange County is not making things right with the sheriff,” Edgerly said.
Edgerly said she recalled that there was a “mistake” made by the personnel director and reiterated Merritt’s statement that commissioners promised to correct that error when possible. She suggested a hearing to discuss the issue before all is finalized.
“That’s just not fair,” she continued. “With all his responsibility and all he does for Orange County, he deserves to make more. If one of my employees made more money than me, I’d be screaming.”
Merritt said while his salary has remained frozen for years along with other elected officials in Orange County, the deputies still receive raises.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Merritt said in an interview. “My employees, they are worth every penny they get. I am just asking the commissioners to fix a mistake. I think that if they knew the whole story, there is not a citizen in Orange County who wouldn’t say, ‘That’s not fair.’”
Judges pay increase from state offset by county
Later in the salary debate at the Sept. 9 meeting, Pct. 4 Commissioner Jody Crump discussed salaries of district judges paid by the state. According to Crump, the state increased the district judges’ salaries by $15,000, which was equal to the amount supplemented by the county in prior years. Crump said that legally the county would have to raise the salaries of the county court-at-law judges also because they were required to be paid $1,000 less than the district judges. Crump said it would cost the county $30,000 to raise the two salaries of county court-at-law judges affected by the state raise for district judges. He suggested that by eliminating the $15,000 supplement provided to the district judges from the county, the judges’ salaries would remain the same as the previous year and the county would save $45,000. They would then not be obligated to give raises to the county court-at-law judges, thereby saving the county the $30,000 more totaling $75,000 in the future in that manner. The district attorney would also be affected because, according to Orange County Attorney Doug Manning, the DA also statutorily makes $1,000 less than the district judges. So the total proposed savings would be more like $90,000 in the end.
Crump, Pct. 1 Commissioner David Dubose and Pct. 2 Commissioner Owen Burton voted in favor of eliminating the supplement while Thibodeaux and Pct. 3 Commissioner John Banken voted against.
Manning spoke up about the issue, seemingly opposed to Crump’s proposal. Manning said there were legalities to consider and also said he felt the judges who would be affected should have been notified about the potential $15,000 decrease in their proposed salaries. Manning also pointed out that something would have to be figured out regarding retirement and benefits if the supplement was taken away.
“You eliminated the $15,000 supplement so there is no county retirement and no health insurance,” Manning explained, saying the county portion of the salaries was from where those deductions were made. “Did y’all not think this thing out before you decided to do this? Apparently not.”
Although the measure passed, there will be further discussion at a hearing Friday, Sept. 13, and the item will be reconsidered.
Any Orange County elected officials who do not agree with their salaries as proposed would need to file a grievance by sending a letter to Thibodeaux’s office as soon as possible.