Highland County Common Pleas Court Judge Rocky Coss addresses county commissioners at their Feb. 10 meeting. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
Highland County Common Pleas Court Judge Rocky Coss addresses county commissioners at their Feb. 10 meeting. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
After over an hour of discussions that eventually turned into arguments, Highland County commissioners Jeff Duncan, Terry Britton and David Daniels agreed — in a rare divided vote — to approve a salary increase for a probation department employee.

The request — which, having been authorized by the judiciary already, was largely a formality — eventually passed by a 2-1 vote, with Daniels dissenting. Although Britton gave some feedback, Daniels primarily spoke against the request Wednesday, as reflected by his vote.

Highland County Common Pleas Court Judge Rocky Coss, who asked to be placed on the agenda to speak about the request, said that the commission “made an argument out of nothing” after hearing their perspective.

“Is this the fight we need to pick?” he asked. “Is this the hill you want to die on?”

In addition to Coss, also attending the meeting Wednesday morning were Highland County Court Judge Robert Judkins; Hillsboro Municipal Court Judge David McKenna; Highland County Chief Probation Officer Gary Breeden; and Highland County Probation Director of Programming and Clinical Services Tonya Sturgill.

According to commission clerk Mary Remsing, the probation department initially reached out to the commissioners office via phone call to discuss the pay increases, then later “submitted payroll with the proposed raises.”

What was proposed was an increase in probation staff’s hourly rate, contingent upon receiving the same grant funding for the department, as there was already enough money budgeted to account for this increase. The commissioners and Coss have joint jurisdiction over the department, a “unique” setup, as pointed out by the judges.

According to Coss, “there are available funds in the current biennial budget and in the expected 2022-23 budget to cover raises for all probation officers, administrative and support staff and would make the minimum hourly salary for line probation officers $16.50 per hour,” up from the current $14.50 starting rate.

The department is allocated $70,000 from the county general fund, according to Coss, and the rest of the department’s funding comes from grants. Coss said that the department receives “about $550,000 a year in grants and anticipates receiving $1,189,936 for the next 2022-23 state budget cycle.

The department was looking at raises for all 13 employees, most of which are covered through the grants. Coss initially said the grants covered all but two people, accounting for $7,280 plus fringe benefits for which they were seeking commission approval. Breeden later clarified that only one employee’s salary increase had not been approved, as an administrative assistant previously paid for out of the general fund is now paid for out of grants. Coss said the total that needed approved would be closer to $7,500 altogether (including benefits) to cover a probation officer who works in Greenfield.

“We have the money to give everybody else, and obviously it wouldn’t be fair to give raises to all those in grant positions and not to the one who’s doing the same work,” Coss said.

In the event grant funding is cut, Coss said the hourly pay rates of each employee would be cut accordingly, so there will not be negative any impact on the budget. Coss said the department also sought the opinion of Highland County prosecutor Anneka Collins and the county’s legal consultant for labor relations, Clemans, Nelson & Associates.

“The raises are conditional,” Coss said. “We explained to the employees that they can only be paid of the grant’s renewed, and if they’re not, they’ll be reduced. I told Tonya and Gary to have them sign a paper stating that, but I also asked them to get legal advice.”

Coss said he hoped commissioners would “withdraw your objections and agree to this” pay raise proposal, but regardless, the decision had been made.

“It is the court’s decision, and that is the decision,” Coss said.

McKenna told commissioners, “I don’t want to send a message to the probation department that they are not valued.” He praised the probation department, which he said “has such a good operation that they’ve won recognition twice as the best small probation department in the state since I’ve been [judge],” with officers receiving individual awards as well.

“At one point, years ago, I valued the probation department to the point that I bypassed the last two months of my salary one year and had Bill Fawley transfer it to the probation department when they were in a budget crisis,” McKenna said. “That’s how much I value them, and I hope you all will value them just as much.”

Judge Judkins said that he and the other two judges in attendance have seen other probation departments in action while sitting on cases in other counties and echoed the other judges’ commendation.

“What Rocky and Dave are telling you is not BS,” Judkins said. “This is the real stuff. Other counties cannot believe how fortunate we are to have an integrated county probation department.

“We are so blessed that these particular people have been so successful in their grants, obtaining money so that they have basically almost self-funded this operation with the good, valuable support of the county commissioners. But the results have been stunning.”

After hearing these and other initial comments from the three judges, Daniels presented several concerns, which were addressed — and disputed — by the judges for a majority of the meeting.

“I don’t think that anybody sitting around this table undervalues the job that the probation department is doing,” Daniels said. “I think our objection stems from the fact that these are staff bonuses.”

Daniels read from an email the commission “received a year ago” on the topic of “staff bonuses” for the probation department, followed by “almost a year to the day, a new email” referring to “temporary raises.”

“I don’t think it’s wise policy to be giving bonuses,” Daniels said. “This is obviously — it appears to me — an attempt to get around the bonus question. You can disguise this is as temporary raises, that we’ve gone and asked people to sign a paper saying that they’re going to give it back if we don’t get that much money, but it appears to me that that’s what the argument is here.

“We’re giving staff raises, or bonuses, to people making $64,000 a year, $46,000 a year. I think those salaries are above, in some cases, what a lot of county employees are making.”

Coss said that he “would agree that bonuses aren’t good policy,” although he pointed out that there is “precedent established in [the commissioners’] office” after they authorized county employee bonuses several years ago.

“When they came to me last year, the reason they were granted as bonuses was because we had the money and wanted to, again, recognize these people were being underpaid,” Coss said. “It’s not anything as nefarious as might be thought. It is good policy to make these things more regular, and that’s why I wanted to do it this way.”

Sturgill said that she “didn’t realize ‘bonuses’ was such a dirty word in the county” when she made the initial proposal.

“The email a year ago was in reference to our drug court funding,” Sturgill said. “We received [Addiction Treatment Program] funding. It had $3,000 in administrative funds to it. I was told they did not care how we spent that money, and they did not want any kind of anything submitted back to them. I think if anything, all that shows is for over a year I’ve been trying to increase the salaries of our staff and to show appreciation for their hard work.

“The idea of ‘temporary’ was in no way to put it under the radar of a bonus — in no way whatsoever — because the idea is they would be permanent. If the grant funding is there, they would 100-percent be permanent. The idea of ‘temporary’ was worst-case scenario, if we have to make the cut, we could take those raises back.”

McKenna said he had not heard the word “bonus” come up until Daniels mentioned it. “I’m trying to sit here thinking when bonus became a four-letter word,” McKenna said. “I don’t know why we’ve gotten sidetracked. Whether the concept of a bonus or a raise or a bushel of peaches, call it whatever you want. Let the people that have earned a pat on the back have a pat on the back. It doesn’t affect your budget.”

Both Daniels and Britton also suggested that the extra money should be paid back to the county.

“I think that we, the commissioners — and Rocky, you bore this out when you made your presentation — I think that we’ve been fair with a lot of the judicial programs,” Daniels said. “I go back and make reference to the fact that Victim Witness lost a $40,000 a year grant this year, and we were more than happy to supply additional funds to operate that program in the shortfall.

“It seems to me that if there are additional grant monies, and if we are helping to support these programs, I don’t think it hurts us to have that money repaid back to the county’s general fund.”

Judkins praised the board of commissioners for their history of “good cooperation and excellent support of all the county agencies, including our court and justice system.”

“The question is whether we’re going to continue with that wise cooperation,” he said. “In this particular case, we have money that’s being available to this county, through the efforts of this department, in their obtaining their grant, without affecting the budget whatsoever.

“In fact, this department exists under that premise. If they don’t get their grants renewed, they don’t exist anymore, and we’re up a creek.”

Daniels disagreed that “the department wouldn’t exist” without the $1.1 million in grant funding per biennium, again referencing the money the county allocated to Victim Witness. “We will step up when we need to,” Daniels said.

Britton said the county had “a lot of questions on why they had extra money and what they were going to do with it … before the grant cycle started” and proposed paying that money back to the county.

“When we looked at it, we determined that we subsidize that department so much money every year, and we just felt like if they did have extra money that it should possibly come back to the general fund to help pay that portion of it,” Britton said.

Coss responded again that the $70,000 is “plenty of money” to account for the one remaining officer position.

“I understand that, but we still subsidize that person,” Britton said.

“You subsidize everybody, Terry,” Coss said. “You provide the court. You don’t charge me for providing the courthouse. You pay all the retirement for my employees, just like you do for the sheriff and everybody else. They actually even pay their own retirement, so they’re actually picking that up for you.”

Sturgill explained to commissioners that the probation department “lost two long-term staff members last year, and that left this money on the table that was able to be divided up between the rest of the staff because there was a gap between when the new employees were hired, and the new employees were hired at a lower rate than the ones that left.”

“If a grant is not used, it goes back, correct?” Britton asked.

“To the state,” Coss said.

“If it comes into our general fund, then we have a little extra money in there,” Britton said.

“We can’t pay it back to the general fund,” Coss said. “We have to have it budgeted for specific purposes. One of those purposes isn’t balance to the general fund. It goes back to them. They have to prove all our expenditures and all the things we use the money for. They don’t just give us a checkbook and say ‘spend it.’”

Britton asked if the grant money could be used to pay employees’ salaries. Coss said that “some departments and grants may do that” but pointed out that the county is paying insurance costs for other county departments out of the general fund already.

“These people are only not general fund people because of the grants,” Coss said. “Quite honestly, if we didn’t have the grants, we’d probably have to have close to the number of people that we have, which means instead of $70,000 a year plus insurance, you’d be paying $550,000 a year. Dave [Daniels], if you can step up to the plate in one year on that, then you guys are amazing, but I know you can’t.”

Judkins said the county runs the risk of “killing the goose that’s laying the golden egg” in terms of grant money.

“If this money goes back to the general fund instead of being applied in the probation department itself, you’re going to make it much more difficult for them to keep up this grant program,” Judkins said. “You’re going to make it very difficult for them. You may be killing the goose that’s laying the golden egg, which is insane. It’s stupid. It’s fiscally irresponsible to do that.”

Daniels reprimanded him, saying, “We’ve managed to keep ‘stupid’ and ‘irresponsible’ out of this conversation. Now come on.”

“I apologize, but it just doesn’t make any sense,” Judkins said.

“The pay scale that was developed happened a week ago to justify what we’re doing here now,” Daniels said. “We can make these arguments all day long. I would argue that maybe we ought to be talking to the city of Hillsboro or the city of Greenfield to help some of these costs, but we’re not.”

Another objection by the commissioners was the timing of the request, as they took issue with the fact that raises are proposed in the middle of a budget cycle.

“Normally, raises in the probation department have come around about the beginning of July, when the new funding cycle comes out,” Daniels said. “That has been kind of the norm, so to see staff bonuses come out at this point kind of raised some red flags.”

Daniels added that the state budget proposal indicates there may be cuts in the next biennial budget “due to the high unemployment in the state.” He said that in general, it’s “a bad time” to make such a request.

“I think about the number of people out there that aren’t getting raises, aren’t getting bonuses, aren’t getting everything else,” Daniels said. “This just is a bad time to be doing it. In three months’ time or in four months’ time, we’re going to find out what money’s available for this department, and I don’t think anybody’s going to suffer if they have to wait for three or four months to see the kind of money that comes in.”

Coss said that he has given raises in the middle of a budget cycle before and that there is “nothing suspicious” about this request. “There’s nothing that says raises have to be given January the first after commissioners approve the annual budget,” he said.

“I think the situation where it came up at the latter end of the cycle versus waiting until the grant cycle starts was the big question,” Britton said. “That doesn’t seem normal to us.”

“It’s our intent to keep them,” Coss said. “If we get a 10-percent cut in our grant, we’ll be able to keep this, I think. If we get a 20- or 30-percent cut, then maybe we won’t.”

Britton pointed out that the county had to look at things from their budget perspective as well.

“My stand is if we’re going to stay within the budget, then I would agree with it,” Britton said. “The only thing we were just looking at is making sure — we have to stay within our budget also. Anything we can do to help that situation, and that’s kind of the way we were looking at this is if you’ve got a little extra money, maybe we need the help on the health insurance or whatever. You’ve got to kind of take a look at our side. We’re looking at our checkbook also.”

Judkins asked the commissioners to use the excess funds to “reward and acknowledge” the probation department.

“You need to pat these people on the back and acknowledge the good job and encourage them,” Judkins said. “Don’t just let this waste and say ‘we’re going to take this windfall and put it back in the general fund and ignore you and the good work you’ve done and the fact you’ve even obtained these funds for the county.’ I do strongly believe they should be rewarded and acknowledged for the sound work they’ve done.”

The issue of fairness for other county employees was also discussed, as Daniels also said that he didn’t want to “set the probation department apart from any other department in the county.”

“We all do good work here,” Daniels said. “Every court does good work, every county employee, you hope, does good work. Do I value the work [the probation officers] do and recognize they do it in a dangerous environment? Absolutely.”

Coss argued that “not every employee is the same” and that commissioners should consider the amount of training and education that probation officers have.

“For 44 years, I’ve always heard that commissioners have always taken the position ‘we’re going to treat every employee the same,’” Coss said. “I agree every employee is valuable, but not every employee is the same. We not only have apples and oranges, we have grapefruit and tangelos and grapes and everything else. They’re different. That’s why I actually pointed out in the materials, if you’d look, Dave: how many of those [county] employees have college degrees? If they want to make $46,000, they can go to college to do that.

“You have very few employees in this county that are required to have college degrees, and yet they do extremely competent and capable work. I’m not undervaluing them, but I’m just saying we have to recognize what it takes to be able to get these positions.”

Coss said that 11 of the 13 probation department positions require a college degree. To his knowledge, he said, only legal positions; deputy coroners; deputy engineers; the health commissioner and health department nurses; Job and Family Services supervisors and caseworkers are the only county employees required to have a degree.

“If you want to look around the county and compare and be fair, Dave, then compare college degree positions to college degree positions,” Coss said. “When you do that, you cannot argue that you are being unfair to the probation department. You pay case workers out at JFS $17 and $19 an hour starting. You’re paying corrections officers, which I think can be $18, $16.83 to $17.53 an hour.

“If you want to say you’re going to be fair, let’s compare apples to apples, not apples to grapefruit or oranges or tangelos.”

After addressing those concerns, all three judges urged commissioners to authorize the request, given their history of “being on the same team.” It was also argued that all three judges and the probation department have saved the county a significant amount of money over the years, compared to the already budgeted, approximate $7,500 request.

As mentioned, Coss had told commissioners that regardless of what they said, the decision had been made. During the course of their discussion, Daniels himself acknowledged, “You know very good and well you can order this done, and we’ve got no recourse whatsoever.”

“I don’t want to do that, because I’ve never had to do it, and I don’t want you to force me to do it, because there’s really no good reason for you to do that,” Coss said. “You’ve made an argument out of nothing. We’re within our budget. If one of the other departments decided to give a raise to somebody for this year’s budget, there’s not a thing you can do about it.”

“It’s a bonus,” Daniels replied.

“It’s not a bonus, Dave, and again, even if it were, it was based upon the fact that this county and this commissioners office has authorized bonuses for county employees in the past and even paid them,” Coss said. “Quite honestly, the word ‘bonus’ didn’t even come up when I discussed this with Tonya. When we talked about bonuses last year, I had said ‘we need to work on getting these salaries increased.’”

Daniels said he was “going to call it a staff bonus, whether people like it or not.”

“I would bet you almost every taxpayer in Highland County would like to have a bonus this time of year, but they don’t,” Daniels said. “Maybe I ought to say that this is only $70,000 a year, or $100,000, and maybe I just shouldn’t care about it,” Daniels said.

“It’s about $10,000, Dave,” Coss said. “Actually, even less, since they put the other one over [to grants] — maybe $5,000.”

McKenna summed up the request, saying that the judiciary and county are “all on the same team,” and historically there’s “been a sense of cooperation between the judiciary and the commissioners and the other aspects of government.”

“We don’t need to go to where we’re not cooperating with each other,” he said. “You’ve seen the unified position of the judiciary. We are asking you to go along with this, whatever you want to call it — bonus, lottery winnings. It only is being presented to you at the end of the cycle because it’s got money at the end of the cycle. If they’d known they’d had money at the beginning of the cycle, then they could have.

“Right now, we have enough money to give these people a little extra money for their families, and sure, every family in the county would like extra money. I’d like extra money, too. But we’re not talking about everybody else, we’re talking about the people affected by this raise, which really is only one person.”

Britton said the commissioners “work together with all the departments” but “just questioned the decisions being made. “We are on the same team for every department,” he said.

“I agree, Terry, and I hope that, but that’s not the feeling that I’m getting here today,” McKenna said.

As McKenna pointed out, Breeden said that the probation department had “no clue” in advance that the two employees in question were leaving, so they could not have prepared for the extra funds. Sturgill noted that “the recommendation of one of the employees in his exit interview was the department should really have a pay scale, and we started looking and said ‘you’re right, we don’t have one.’ We started working on one.”

“I think part of this is communication,” Coss said. “I thought I was being more open and transparent by setting up the department the way I did where you guys are much more aware of it because you’re handling it, rather than me handling it or taking responsibility.

“When it came to the day-to-day stuff and things like this, I kind of left it up to you guys and them, because everything is going smoothly.”

Coss added that “if we’re going to maintain a good working relationship and leave it the way it is, I will pledge to you that I will try to get [information] out to you as soon as we start thinking about things, so you’re aware of it, so that when it does come about it’s not a surprise.”

“We can continue to do that, if that’s what you want to do,” Coss said. “Or, if you want me to, as part of the court order I can take over the department, remove it from you and I’ll administer it.”

The approximate 77-minute argument Wednesday over $5,000 plus benefits for one county employee is “a lesson in business as well as a lesson in politics,” Coss told commissioners. He added that some judges and commissioners “have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting each in other in court, but the good part for the judges is the commissioners pay for both attorneys.”

“When it comes down to it, all you guys are businessmen,” Coss said. “You have to decide how much it’s worth to fight over what’s in question. We’re talking about $5,000 plus fringes — about $7,500. Is it worth all of this unpleasantness that we’ve just gone through? Is it worth what’s going to happen in the future, the costs?

“Let’s talk about this from a business standpoint. It’s a lesson in business as well as a lesson in politics. Pick your fights. Is this the fight we need to pick? Is this the hill you want to die on?”

“I don’t think we are picking a fight,” Britton said.

“When you said you weren’t going to accept my decision — that, to me, you picked a fight,” Coss said. “You just said ‘stay within the budget and we’re all right.’ For God’s sake, we’re within the budget.”

Britton then said the commissioners office had an issue “with communication” on the proposal, as Coss indicated. “The way we heard about it was through a request for a pay increase,” he said.

“Like Dave [McKenna] said, we’ve always been together on this,” Coss said. “Again, if for nothing else than gratitude of the hundreds of thousands of dollars all three of us have saved you over the years, I would think you wouldn’t want to argue this amount of money. I guess, as my dad used to say, ‘you’re making a mountain out of a molehill.’

“So anyway, I just need to know. Do I need to put on a court order, or will you approve that pay in the normal course of events like we did? We sent it over and you sent it back, as I understand it.”

“I think they were paid on the rate they were sent over,” Daniels said.

“No, sir,” Sturgill said.

“Not the county employee, you’re right,” Daniels said. “Everyone else got their bonus.”

“Not ‘bonus,’ Dave,” Coss said. “It’s a raise.”

“Mr. Chairman, I move that we discuss this later on in the meeting,” Daniels said. “We’ll inform you of our decision.”

After the judges and probation directors left, commissioners then proceeded to go through their usual agenda, which lasted approximately seven minutes. They took a brief recess at Daniels’ request. After the recess, Daniels then moved to go into executive session, which commissioners entered at approximately 10:31 a.m.

According to Remsing, at 10:39 a.m., commissioners exited executive session.

“A motion was made by Commissioner Britton and seconded by Commissioner Duncan to approve the request from the Probation Department for the increase in salary for the county employee that the county funds,” Remsing said. “The vote resulted as follows:  Mr. Duncan, yea; Mr. Britton, yea; and Mr. Daniels, nay.”

Aside from some of the county committee's CARES Act funding requests, the last known 2-1 vote at a county commission meeting was Dec. 10, 2014, when then-commissioner Jeremy Shaffer voted against a resolution proceeding with construction to a county sewer district.