Salaries and Benefits For Side Judges Draw Criticism

Front Page / Dec. 6, 2007 12:00am EST

By Cornelia Cesari

Salaries and Benefits For Side Judges Draw Criticism By Cornelia Cesari

Tempers heated up Orange County’s drafty old courthouse Thursday night during a preliminary hearing on the county budget. The hearing is required by statute, to "invite discussion" as Orange County begins the budget process for the next fiscal year, which starts Feb. 1.

The final hearing, at which the budget can be adopted, will be held at the annual meeting on Jan. 8. The county budgets are prepared and adopted by the two side judges and then paid for by towns in the county.

"We’ve never had so many people show up!" marveled Side Judge Prudence Pease Thursday evening, as she entered the courtroom, shuffling papers. The front row was filled with familiar faces in Orange County politics: State Rep. Phil Winters, former State Rep. Sylvia Kennedy, Probate Judge Bernard Lewis, former Orange County Sen. Stephen Webster, and Randolph Selectmen Jim Hutchinson and Larry Townsend.

After a quick count, Pease left to make more copies of the budget to hand out.

"Who brought the tomatoes?" the other side judge, Maurice "Mo" Brown joked nervously, alleviating the tension. "You know, to throw…"

This was Brown’s first time through the budget process, as he was appointed by Gov. Douglas after the death in office of Judge Joseph Anthony.

Judge Brown had reason to be nervous, although most criticism at the meeting was leveled at Judge Pease, who wrote the budget. The budget proposed $333,553 for courts, a 14% increase from last year’s $293,174. The sheriff’s budget would be $284,448, 4% higher than last year’s $273,438.

Salaries Questioned

The record attendance at the meeting was prompted by the salaries and benefits for the side judges that were contained in the new county budget, items which continue a trend of steep increases. Since Judge Pease was sworn in, in January 2003, combined salaries for the two judges have risen 365%, from $5,200 to $19,000. The biggest increase was in the 2005-6 budget, when they jumped from $6000 to $16,000.

Pease explained that it was just a matter of catching up to the rest of the state.

"When I took office," she told the hearing, "it was $2,700 (per judge); but that was out of sync with other counties in the state. When I was elected, I raised this question to the Assistant Judges’ Association. The state auditor’s office had asked for a consistency in pay, and so the amount was decided to be set at 3% of the county budget."

That would set each side judge’s salary at 1.5% of the total budget.

Pease distributed a list comparing eight selected counties’ assistant judge salaries, showing some as high as Caledonia at 4.95%, while Orange appeared as the lowest of those on the list, at 2.9%.

Continuing her defense, Pease said that she has never received any negative feedback from constituents. She claimed that, lacking other guidance, she turned to the Assistant Judges’ Association for guidelines as to salary and benefits. In comparison with the rest of the state, Orange County side judges are paid a "reasonable salary," she insisted.

(When the judges sit on the bench and hear cases (2-3 days a week), they are paid a per diem from the state at about $17 per hour, in addition to their county salary.)

Former Rep. Kennedy then stood and read from the Vermont Constitution, declaring that "the intention is not for someone to use this office for profit. It is not a job; it is a community service."

Benefits Package

The benefits package for the side judges came into question as well as the salaries According to the budget, the county would pay 26% of the assistant judges’ salaries into retirement. In contrast, the county’s contribution to the rest of the staff’s retirement funds amounted to 3.7% of their collective salaries. The court clerks reportedly pay 3.8% of their salary into retirement, with a 6.3% contribution from the county, while the sheriff’s department’s bookkeeper and clerks have differing levels of benefits.

Superior Court Clerk Emily Newman admitted that she doesn’t understand the layers of benefits. She is paid by the state and also works for county but isn’t allowed to have the county package, even though she was appointed by the side judges. As a result, Newman pays $220/month toward her state health care benefits.

Although she was seated up front next to the side judges, she said at one point, "Maybe I should come over to the other side with all of you. I’m just speaking the truth here, because it needs to be told."

The integrity of the process was called into question as well; last year, Judge Pease’s retirement check was written directly to her.

"I was uncomfortable with that," admitted Newman. "I didn’t want to sign it." Neither did Lois Austin, county treasurer. Newman consulted the county’s attorney, J. Scott Cameron. Judge Pease received a letter, which was read by Judge Brown, approving the payment. Cameron required that an account be set up by the end of the year. After that, retirement could be directly deposited by the county. Absent proof by the end of the year, the $2,500 would be declared as additional income.

The assistant judges’ benefit package seemed overly generous to many present. "26% retirement, 100% of medical insurance, 100% dental…This is a h___ of a deal. How did we go from being so frugal to this?" Stephen Webster wondered.

To clarify, Pease explained that 100% of her medical insurance only amounts to $100 per month, because her low income qualifies her for state-paid health benefits. Judge Brown’s county-paid reimbursement for his supplemental insurance would be $270 per month.

For employees who accept the insurance policy instead of being reimbursed for premium payments on their own policy, the cost is $510 per month.

When pressed about the 50% increase in health insurance costs in the budget for next year—going from $20,500 to $30,600—it emerged that the current system was not legal. Working toward parity, all employees should receive the same value: $510 per month, Pease said.

"Does this mean," Pease was asked, "that now you’ll not only get 100% of your insurance costs, but a $400 check on top of it?"

"Yes," she admitted. "We need to work toward parity."

Judge Pease repeatedly stressed that her buget proposals were legal, referring to statements from Atty. Cameron and the attorney for the Assistant Judges’ Association.

"I’m not concerned with legality—it’s a question of integrity!" Sherri Richardson insisted. "Twelve hours a week doesn’t qualify anyone for benefits. At 100%? Mind-boggling!

"If you wanted to receive those kinds of benefits, I would think you would have sought full time employment," she declared.

Judge Brown, who comes from a business background admitted, "Having the employee make some contribution is more palatable, especially when you’re talking about tax dollars," he commented.

"You didn’t know how good a deal it was (when you took the job)!" someone joked.

"I guess not!" he answered, amidst welcome laughter.

In seriousness, Phil Winters remarked, "There are many people who work full time and get no retirement and no medical insurance."

Pease retreated to a position of legality when directly confronted by Richardson: "You’ve heard a lot of angst about this, " the Chelsea woman said, "that this is not okay for us, or for this county. I want to know: what will you do with the information you gather this evening?"

"I will clarify with the asst judges’ attorney how this was established so I can present it to the people of the county. I will take your opinions and move forward," Pease responded.

"Is it just a matter of legality for you?" Richardson demanded.

"I don’t have an answer for you today," Pease answered.

Enraged, Richardson stood up. "Shame on you!" she declared. With that, she left the hearing.

Mary Daly of Fairlee summed up the mood in the room. "In Vermont, people like myself who go to work day after day are getting racked with taxes and we are tired of it; very, very tired. I have worked full time as a nurse for 40 years, and I have never had 100% medical. We are saying that we need you to look like the rest of us."

(A similar sentiment was expressed this week at the Randolph Selectboard meeting. Selectman Larry Townsend said he was "appalled" at the benefits package. "I just had a feeling that the fox is in the henhouse," he declared.)

Sheriff’s Budget

While community members were critical of the court budget, there was widespread support for the sheriff’s department. Sheriff Bill Bohnyak carefully accounted for each increase; explaining, for example, that his insurance costs have gone up by 10%. However, although the OCSD budget has increased by 42% since 2002-3, in contrast the court budget has increased by 220%.

When the sheriff was questioned about a projected decrease of $2000 in the automotive budget, it emerged that Bohnyak had been asked by Judge Pease to make that change and to find the funding elsewhere, from state sources.

"Well, I should think," offered Cassie Metcalf, among murmurs of agreement, "that we’d be willing to pay for gas for the sheriff’s department. Take it out of the judges’ benefits!"

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