Highland County Common Pleas Court Judge Rocky Coss met with the Highland County commissioners Wednesday in an attempt to iron out differences in what he described as “salary adjustments in the county probation department program,” at one point threatening to invoke a court order concerning raises for the probation department.
Coss indicated a court order would remove control of the probation department from the commissioners and would be administered by him, which he said would incur additional costs that would likely be more than the proposed raises would account for.
Also appearing with Coss to express their support and opinions were Hillsboro Municipal Court Judge David McKenna and Highland County Court Judge Robert Judkins.
Coss and commissioner David Daniels entered into what became a heated discussion concerning the proposed raises, with Daniels citing an email from one year ago that he said referred to as a “bonus.”
“Our objections stem from the fact that these are staff bonuses,” Daniels said. “I don’t think that it’s wise policy to be giving bonuses now.”
He referenced another email from Tonya Sturgill, the probation department’s director of programming and clinical services, that he said appeared to be an attempt “to get around the bonus question.”
“We’re giving staff raises, or bonuses, to people making $64,000 and $46,000 a year, and I think those salaries are above in some cases what a lot of county employees are making,” Daniels said. “Normally, raises in the probation department have come around about the beginning of July when the new funding cycle comes out. So to see staff bonuses come out at this point raises some red flags.”
Daniels said his main concern, speaking for himself and not the board of commissioners, was to continue to operate within the budget and to consider what the budget for next year may look like, in addition to any potential funding cuts that may come from the state.
In rebutting Daniel’s comments, Coss agreed that bonuses are not good policy, but pointed out the precedent had already been established in the commissioners’ office concerning bonuses, when an across the board wage freeze was ordered in 2008 due to the recession, and then bonuses were authorized “at the end of the budget year in 2011 or 2012 since there was some extra money left.”
He said that in the event of funding cuts, the raises would be temporary and taken back, and that employees had signed statements of understanding to that effect.
“We’re doing this within the budget,” Coss stressed. “You already appropriated the budget for this year, and in the next year, we’re not asking for any more. I don’t understand why this is a problem when we’re doing it within the budget.”
Coss took issue with Daniel’s comment regarding fairness, admonishing the commissioner to insure that “every employee in this county that has a college degree is paid equitably.”
“It’s not fair for you to say that a person like Tonya, who has a master’s degree, or these officers that have bachelor’s degrees, should be paid the same as an 18-year old who walks into some other department and gets a job,” Coss said.
He said that in light of his court always operating within budget, “I don’t want this to be confrontational, but if I make a court order, it will be because of this board, for the first time in many, many years, going back to the days of Judge (Darrell) Hottle, has forced me to do it — and I am prepared to do it.”
Coss drew comparisons with the pay scale of probation departments in neighboring counties.
“The board of commissioners for Highland County has been spoiled for over 20 years because we have been able to operate, what I feel, is one of the best probation departments in the state of Ohio for about $70,000 from the general fund,” Coss said.
He compared the Highland County probation program with the one in Adams County, which according to documentation supplied by Coss at the meeting, showed a county budget of $90,000 along with grant funding that supported a staff of 10 supervising 300 offenders.
Highland County’s budget of $70,000 plus grants supported a staff of 13 with a caseload triple that of Adams County at 950 offenders, the document showed.
Coss also pointed out the starting salary of probation officers was $14.50 per hour, a dime higher than Adams County, but $1.50 to $3.50 per hour less than other counties that border Highland.
He said that what had been happening in the Highland County probation department due to the current pay scale is that it has been providing training, initial orientation, and early work experience for personnel that later end up working in other counties.
“I’ve been concerned about the pay situation for some time because we are continually losing people,” Coss said. “These people have been underpaid for so long that it was important to me to get them the money as quickly as would be possible. We have the money for the rest of this biennium, so it makes no sense to deprive these folks of four month’s of a raise.”
Coss said that with the nearly $1.2 million in biennial grant funding through the state, combined with the $70,000 in general fund money from the county, raises of at least $1 per hour or more could be given to probation department staff, “reflective of those positions, responsibilities and the danger they sometimes face.”
“To ask someone to risk their life for $14.50 an hour, I think, is ridiculous,” he said.
Coss said any raises would be conditional to continued grant funding, and in the event the grant was not renewed, the raises would be reduced. But he said he was confident in the stability of the department’s grant funding process based upon previous experience.
“I don’t have any criticism about your budget and how you’ve managed it,” Daniels said. “I would almost bet you every taxpayer in Highland County would like to have a bonus this time of year, but they don’t. And all I’m trying to do, and whether you think I’m being fair or this board’s being fair, I don’t think we’re trying to undervalue anybody.”
The commissioners later went into executive session concerning personnel matters, and upon reconvening, approved the request from Coss for the probation department salary increase.
A motion for approval was made by commissioner Terry Britton and seconded by board chairman Jeff Duncan, the measure passing on a 2-1 vote, with commissioner Daniels voting “nay.”
Also Wednesday, eight resolutions were approved, including one that approved a qualified energy project application for certification of the proposed Palomino solar panel farm project.
According to information supplied by the commissioners, the Palomino solar project is a 200-megawatt solar panel farm that would be located in Union, Penn and Dodson townships, covering roughly 1,300 acres.
Innergex Renewable Energy indicated in that document that it planned for construction to commence on Nov. 1, 2022, with scheduled completion by Dec. 31, 2023.
In other matters, commissioners approved a contract involving Highland County Engineer Chris Fauber and Forterra Pike & Precast for the 2021 purchase of reinforced concrete storm sewer pipe.
A contract was renewed with Stantec Consulting Services, Inc. for the 2021 general services agreement with the Highland County Airport.
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.