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Pay increases in county office questioned

During the St. Francois County Commission meeting earlier this week an area attorney once again questioned the commission about the prosecutor’s office.

The commission had a line item on the day’s agenda to address job title changes in the St. Francois County Prosecutor’s Office. The request was to have an employee take over the Victims Advocate I position at $16.75 an hour and another employee move up to a Legal Secretary position at $12.50 an hour.

Vonne L. Karraker, an attorney with Manley, Karraker & Karraker in Farmington, told the commission she was able to get some information and had questions about some numbers.

THE QUESTIONS

“I know that inflation hasn’t been that bad in the past four years and I noticed there are several employees in the prosecutor’s office who seem to have made anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000 or more in raises just in the past three years alone,” Karraker said. “I was wondering what the justification was for that.”

Karraker said she also noticed the proposed new title changes for one employee came with a $16.75 an hour pay rate, or roughly $35,000 a year.

“I know the previous occupant of that position, Victim Advocate, according to her W-2s made $30,000 a year in that same job that she held for, I think, 15 years,” Karraker said. “I’m wondering what the explanation would be for such a huge pay bump for someone who may not have done that job before.”

Karraker said she also noted that in offering to give another employee $12 an hour to be a legal secretary, as someone who hires legal secretaries she knows they have to come with certain skills and qualifications.




Description of Legal Secretary, Legal Assistant and Paralegal

According to theparalegalschool.com, a legal secretary is a particular category of worker within the legal profession typically assisting lawyers. Legal secretaries help by preparing and filing legal documents, such as appeals or motions.

The terms “paralegal” and “legal assistant” have been used interchangeably over the years and with good reason. These legal professionals perform similar duties within a law firm, and they’re often referred to in the same context in legal decisions handed down by courts.

A paralegal or legal assistant is an individual, qualified by education, training or work experience, who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency, or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.

Whenever a lawyer is taking a case to trial, whether it is criminal or civil, a significant amount of preparation has to go into place. Both legal secretaries and paralegals are heavily involved in the preparation for cases. A legal secretary will work to organize working files, organize documents for attorney review, and help to schedule meetings for the attorney and paralegal.

A paralegal will be involved in a more detailed role. They can help to perform research on the case, spend time interviewing potential witnesses and parties to the case, and help to prepare arguments and statements that will be given in the courtroom. Once they case comes to trial, the paralegal will be able to provide assistance to the attorney as well.

“Frankly, when I look at all the raises that have been given to this particular group of women, not every woman in that office to be honest, but just a particular small group of women, (they have) had massive pay hikes in the past three years,” Karraker said. “I am wondering if there was any consideration of the requisite skills set, education, background and training certification that would justify those.”

She added that in response to her first Sunshine Law records request she received five years of payroll information which tells her that some people received little to no raises at all in the prosecutor’s office. She stressed again that some people received massive pay hikes in the last few years.

Karraker added that one assistant prosecutor alone went from $58,000 to more than $80,000. She didn’t think it included all of the payroll requisitions for the times he was appointed to represent children or adults in probate or guardian ad litem hearings.

“I want to say that I did request 1099s looking precisely for those records and I did not get the 1099s,” Karraker said. “I did get a stack of requisitions that seems to indicate to me that I should be getting a lot more 1099s than I did get, which were two. One for $100 for one attorney for one year and another for $500 for one attorney for one year.”

Vonne Karraker shares her concerns about salaries during Tuesday's county commission meeting.

Vonne Karraker shares her concerns about salaries during Tuesday’s county commission meeting.

Karraker said it seemed to her they would have received thousands of dollars for the work. She was wondering if the 1099s were issued and if it was a mistake that she didn’t receive them.

“The other thing that I noticed, when comparing the W2s I got in my second request to the payroll information I got in my first request, is that for several people the W2s show they got several dollars more that year than what was told to me in the response to my first request,” Karraker said. “I’m wondering why such a huge discrepancy.”

She said the office manager in 2017 made $28,890, which is reflective of what is on the W2, but it says one of the legal secretary’s made $26,390 in 2017.

“But, her W2 show she made $33,792,” Karraker said. “I don’t always want to come in here and fight about the Sunshine Law, but it seems to me there is a real need for review and change when numbers are given to me as certified accurate copies and don’t match on the W2s.”

“I think these are things as a taxpayer that I want to know a little more about and I would like to see an explanation as to why these records don’t match up,” Karraker said.

Associate Commissioner Gay Wilkinson said she should speak with the prosecutor since he is the one who presents pay recommendations to the commission.

“Is it not true that the prosecutor has to have pay raises voted on and approved by the commission?” Karraker asked. “Those records are kept here and these questions would be asked at a hearing.”

St. Francois County Commissioner Gay Wilkinson explains that the commissioners approve salaries and raises, but they don't set them. Suggested rates or raises are brought to the commission by the department heads. 

St. Francois County Commissioner Gay Wilkinson explains that the commissioners approve salaries and raises, but they don’t set them. Suggested rates or raises are brought to the commission by the department heads. 

Karraker added that she knows that both the public administrator and the treasurer asked for raises for their staff and were shut down.

Wilkinson said that was really not relevant to her discussion about the prosecutor’s office.

Tensions run high during the St. Francois County Commission meeting when attorney and county resident Vonne Karraker questions prosecuting attorney office salary raises and rates.

Tensions run high during the St. Francois County Commission meeting when attorney and county resident Vonne Karraker questions prosecuting attorney office salary raises and rates.

Visit www.dailyjournalonline.com to view more of the meeting on video.

IN RESPONSE

St. Francois County Prosecuting Attorney Jerrod Mahurin, who was not in attendance at the commission meeting, told the Daily Journal later that day that he understood Karraker was asking about his employees’ salaries but she hadn’t raised the issue with him directly.

“She made a Sunshine Law request some weeks ago to either the auditor’s office or the treasurer’s office,” Mahurin said. “I thought it was explained to her, I don’t set salaries for my employees. That was set by the county commission and any type of increase they have ever had was done by commission or by the auditor’s office when Bret Burgess was the auditor.”

Mahurin explained when former auditor Burgess changed the system from salary to hourly the employees in the prosecutor’s office were given new job titles based on what he created and that is was then they received the pay increases.

“All employees used to be salary employees for the county and then two years ago when he was the auditor they came up with the Tyler System, which is the new accounting system for the county,” Mahurin said. “At that time he said all employees would need to (transition to) hourly employees except for the attorneys for the county because they fall into a special exception, which makes them a salaried employee.”

Mahurin said he decided which personnel went into which category – whether they were a legal secretary, office manager, receptionist or a deputy clerk.

“After talking with each officeholder to determine which positions went to which employee, they set a chart that states if you are an employee with five year’s experience and you are a deputy clerk then you will make ‘X’ amount of dollars per hour,” Mahurin explained. “I don’t have anything to do with the (wages) that people get, everything is set by statute or by the commission or auditor.”

The pay scale system the county implemented two years ago. It is based on job title and years of service. 

The pay scale system the county implemented two years ago. It is based on job title and years of service. 

According to county officials, the step pay system that was created for the county is not actually a Tyler pay system as Tyler did not design it, but it was important for Tyler. The pay scale system was designed to help create some equality for the employees based on job responsibilities and functions and also to give value for their years of service.

Officials said there was such a disparity among employees because they had previously been handling raises as a Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA) percentage annual increase. For example, if someone were making $50,000 a year and they received a three percent COLA, they would receive a $1,500 pay increase for the year while someone making $15,000 would only receive a $450 pay increase.

It was keeping the people on the bottom of the pay grid at the bottom due to smaller annual raises while the employees at the top of the pay range were rising faster because the percentage represented many more actual dollars. So the auditor’s office reportedly evaluated other county offices to create a pay step system that would annually go up at a more balanced rate. If they had 10 years of service their pay would be justified for 10 years of pay. Also if there was an increase in responsibilities those job titles that have greater responsibilities would experience a greater increase in pay.

All hourly pay within the prosecutor’s office is based on a 35 hour work week.

Two of the legal secretaries also receive an additional $7,499 annually from a state-funded program for their work on mental health cases, with that pay divided up throughout the year’s paychecks.

Karraker left the commission meeting with questions still remaining. But Mahurin says pay raises in the past two years have been simply an effort to bring pay rates in his office inline with a more balanced system at the request of the county’s auditor and with the blessing of the county commission. 

Renee Bronaugh is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3617 or rbronaugh@dailyjournalonline.com

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