A dispute between a Howard County judge and the county council over employee raises is headed to the Indiana Supreme Court.

Howard Superior Court 1 Judge William Menges filed an “order for mandate of funds” on Wednesday that sets into motion a court battle about whether four of his employees deserve raises that Menges believes would more equitably compensate the workers.

The order was filed one day after a request for $13,741 in raises from Menges was denied by the council.

That request failed to receive a vote after council members refused to even second a motion on the potential raises, which stand at the center of a months-long controversy over how Menges’ employees are compensated.  

The council previously denied a slightly larger raise request last February during a period in early 2018 when concerns from Menges about his court’s workload helped spark a revamping of the Howard County court system.

Council members have continuously cited the county’s attrition program, which rewards remaining employees in departments that do not replace exiting workers, and Menges’ lack of participation in the program as the reason for their denials.

They say the reason other courthouse employees are paid more than Menges’ workers is because they have taken on additional work through the attrition program.

However, Menges is now mandating a bump for his court reporter of $4,397, which would bring the salary to $42,789.

In conjunction, he has listed a need of $13,333 for his three assistant court reporters, which would bring their salaries to $40,456 each.

Menges wrote in his order that the raises “will not have an adverse effect on a specific fiscal or other interest of Howard County” and are “reasonable and necessary in order to carry out the functions of the court.”

Most notably, Menges said that without the additional funds his court “is facing a clear and present danger of not being able to perform its functions and duties.”

Howard County Attorney Alan Wilson explained that the Indiana Supreme Court will appoint an attorney who does not practice in Howard or any contiguous counties to oversee the case and serve as a special judge.

A trial before the special judge will be set, at which evidence will be presented by the two sides. The case is then automatically reviewed by the Indiana Supreme Court after it is decided.   

A hearing has been set in the case for 9 a.m. March 29 in Howard Superior Court 1, but it is possible that date will be changed following the Supreme Court’s appointment of a special judge.

Wilson said the mandate situation is not “a very common procedure. If you look up the cases that are reported, there are only a small handful of cases that have gone to the Supreme Court where they’ve talked about things like this. So it’s not a very common thing.”

Menges first wrote to the council about a possible mandate on Nov. 2, 2018.

In a letter, he said the budgeted salaries in his court “are substantially less than the equivalent personnel in the other Howard County Courts.

“The employees of Superior Court 1 perform the same tasks as those being paid substantially more, without any articulable, logical, or justifiable reason for the discrepancy.”

He said he would be “happy to meet with … members of the County Council to discuss this situation, and a possible amicable resolution.”

At the end of the letter he cited Indiana’s Trial Rule 60.5, which covers a court’s ability to employ a “mandate of funds.”

An informal meeting involving Menges and council members took place on Dec. 19, followed by a subsequent informal meeting between Menges and current Howard County Council President Jim Papcek.

It was at the meeting with Papacek, says Menges, that “a compromise was discussed and reached.”

That compromise was then brought before the council on Tuesday – and denied.

Papacek said in an interview that he reached the compromise with Menges because he felt like the proposed salary figures, standing on their own, were fair.

But, he noted, things change when you factor in the “integrity” of the attrition program.

The attrition program, implemented in early 2016, is meant to provide savings through a reduction in the county's workforce.

When an employee leaves, either through retirement or another avenue, county department heads have 60 days to meet with human resources and the Board of Commissioners to decide on one of two options – to fill the position or have existing employees absorb the work.

If the second option is chosen, raises are considered for affected employees taking on additional work, although those raises fall well below a former employee’s salary and benefits.

Therefore, Papacek wasn’t surprised by the council’s decision on Tuesday because “most of it had to do with the attrition program more than the dollar amount.”

Papacek confirmed that given the chance, he would have voted against the raises proposal, in large part because he felt like raises to Superior Court 1 employees wouldn’t have been fair to other courthouse workers.

“Because all the other [courts] to get those salaries had given up at least one employee,” he said. “Like I said, the integrity of the program, it would not have made much sense to the other employees that they gave up someone and spread the workload out.”

Papacek, during Tuesday’s meeting, also described the council’s thought-process during its previous denial.

“The council’s thought in the past has been that, if we give the raises to [Menges’] employees, why would the other judges not come back and say, 'Well, either give me the additional employees that I’m down or give me additional money because I’ve lived up to the attrition program,' ” noted Papacek, who said Friday that he does not expect an agreement to be reached with Menges prior to the court battle.

That opinion about the attrition program was reinforced last week by council member John Roberts.

“I know your staff is highly qualified and they work hard, and we appreciate it greatly,” Roberts said to Menges during the council meeting. 

“But the other courts, their staff is also highly qualified and they work hard too, and they’re willing to bring on a little more work for a little more incentive. It’s a win-win that’s following the attrition [program].”

Roberts also referenced a 3 percent pay raise for all county employees approved during last year’s budget session.

Howard County Auditor Martha Lake said that Superior Court 2 and Superior Court 3 have each given up two employees as part of the attrition program, while Circuit Court has given up one employee.

Superior Court 4, noted Lake, gave up an employee before adding it back this year “because they could not do the job with just two full-time employees.”

A breakdown provided by Lake shows that Menges’ court has four full-time employees and one part-time worker, compared to three full-time in Superior Court 2; four full-time in Superior Court 3; three full-time in Superior Court 4; and four full-time and one part-time in Circuit Court.

Menges, however, has insisted that his employees work “harder and longer than the other employees in the courthouse and [get] paid less.” The salaries he has requested would put his employees on equal footing with Superior Court 3 employees.

In conjunction, Menges said he is “at the point where I can justify needing an additional person. … And my people, my employees, are being asked to make up that difference, which is the same thing, the same purpose of the attrition policy, but they don’t get that raise that goes along with it.”

He added: “There’s simply no way that you can look at the work that’s being produced by the employees of Superior Court 1 and [say] they’re not pulling their weight.”

In January 2018, Menges raised eyebrows when he publicly stated that he would discontinue the county’s drug court without a staffing increase.

Menges’ comments created a wave of controversy within the courthouse and county government, and proposals announced shortly after provided both a response to his concerns and a reaction to troubling statistics showing that Howard County was then the second-most overworked judicial system in Indiana.

The two-part plan included a request filed with the Indiana Supreme Court that described a revision of the county’s case-allocation system, in large part by establishing a weekly rotation schedule for felony cases.

The caseload allocation changes, implemented April 1, 2018, have distributed all criminal cases, including drug and domestic violence cases, which previously went to Menges, among all five courts. 

Also at the center of the courthouse reallocation decision was the county’s problem-solving courts, which involves the still-active drug court and other problem-solving initiatives dedicated to mental health, veterans, domestic violence, families and a juvenile program.

In response, the county hired a problem-solving court (PSC) coordinator, a new employee who works through the probation department and lessens the burden among courthouse staff by handling various PSC responsibilities.

Also, a bill in the state legislature that would allow Howard County to appoint a magistrate has passed the House and been referred to the Indiana Senate.

Local officials have said a magistrate could reduce the jail’s population and speed up the process of case hearings and enrollment in the county’s problem-solving courts.

Howard County, according to the most recent available weighted caseload measurements, is now the 10th-most heavily stressed court system in Indiana. A magistrate is expected to ease that pressure.

The most recent statistics, last updated in April 2018, show Circuit Court as the most heavily stressed Howard County court, followed by Superior Court 1. The reallocation plan is likely to alter those figures, although county officials say it is still too early to tell the lasting impact.

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