04/01/13 — EMS pay back on county agenda

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EMS pay back on county agenda

By Steve Herring
Published in News on April 1, 2013 1:46 PM

The contentious issue of how the county calculates overtime pay for its emergency services employees will be back before the Wayne County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday when the commissioners review an Office of Emergency Services-prepared salary analysis.

It has been three months since the board last tackled the thorny issue that has led to some temper flare-ups and a meeting room packed with upset emergency service employees.

Tuesday's meeting will begin with an agenda briefing at 8 a.m. followed by the board session at 9 a.m. in the commissioners' meeting room on the fourth floor of the county courthouse annex.

Payroll has not been mentioned at a board meeting since Jan. 8, when it was among several issues discussed during a four-hour closed session.

After returning to open session the board voted without discussion to discard the new payroll system and return to the old one. Commissioners then adjourned without comment.

Amanda Martin, an attorney for the North Carolina Press Association, said it appears the board violated the state's Open Meetings Law by discussing payroll behind closed doors.

Also, there has been no public discussion of a study other than a brief mention in December by Commissioner Ray Mayo.

Payroll and overtime have dogged the county since last July when a new payroll system was implemented. Problems were manifest from the very start as the county's complicated fluctuating work week used to figure overtime left some employees underpaid and others overpaid.

The problems persisted into October when Mayo and Commissioner Steve Keen grilled County Manager Lee Smith as to why commissioners had been left out of a decision to change how overtime is calculated for emergency workers.

However, they voted with the rest of the board to switch to straight time and time-and-a-half for overtime for EMS employees. The vote also included leaving the employees' base pay unchanged.

Mayo said he had learned about the change in an that Smith had sent out on Oct. 12. County Attorney Borden Parker said that the change had been discussed at an earlier board work session.

Mayo asked Parker if commissioners needed to approve the change and if a budget amendment was needed.

Parker said his opinion was that the board would need to approve changes to the way pay is done. A budget amendment, if the change costs more, would have to be made before the end of the fiscal year, he said.

However, Mayo said commissioners had been left out of the decision making.

Smith said that in early discussions with the board he had asked if commissioner had an issue with such a change.

"Maybe I made an assumption, and maybe I shouldn't have," he said at the time. "But that was the assumption I had, that the board didn't really have a problem with it. I did state I would bring the budget amendment back to you as soon as we had it. Obviously, I needed to move toward something to resolve the issue of overtime."

Commissioners went on to approve the switch to time-and-half effective Dec. 1 and to leave the base pay as was.

That action was one of the first things undone when the new Republican-controlled board took office on Dec. 4. The five GOP board members said that taxpayers could not afford the additional $1 million to $1.5 million annually that would be required to pay time-and-a-half overtime pay for the county's emergency workers.

They also argued that the original vote had been based on incorrect information that indicated the total would be a much lower $200,000.

"I feel that in fairness to the taxpayers of Wayne County that further study is in order," Mayo said. "Not to drop this, but to go back and look at it again. I would like to make a motion that we change the vote of the board of commissioners of Oct. 16 that authorized the Office of Emergency Services to pay regular overtime as of Dec. 1.

"I would like to change that and make the effective date Dec. 5 to maintain the existing payroll rather than going to time-and-a-half. I make this motion in order for us to study it and come up with a compromise that is acceptable to all of us and to the taxpayers of Wayne County."

Commissioner John Bell, a Democrat, voted against the return to the old way of calculating overtime pay.

However, the vote to undo the Oct. 16 board action to pay time-and-a-half added to a mistake made by the previous Democratic-controlled board forcing commissioners to meet in emergency session on Dec. 5.

The problem was that the October vote and the Dec. 4 vote both split the pay period -- something that is not allowed under federal law.

Commissioners met in emergency session on Dec. 5 to change the date from Dec. 5 to Dec. 9 so as to not split a pay period and to return to the old way of computing overtime.