COVINGTON — Newton County Attorney Megan Martin is disputing a claim that two local elected officials are owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back wages by the county.
Local attorney Stephanie Lindsey wrote the Board of Commissioners on Sept. 17 asserting that Chairman Marcello Banes and Probate Court Judge Melanie Bell are owed more than $180,000 each due to an error in the way their compensation has been calculated since they took office in January 2017. Lindsey claims that Banes’ annual compensation should have been $144,733 in 2017, increasing to $148,519 in 2020, and that Bell’s compensation should have been $144,733 in 2017, increasing to $148,519 in 2020. Instead, according to Lindsey, Banes was paid $99,023 in 2017, which had increased to $101,003 in 2020; Bell was paid $99,023 in 2017, which had increased to $103,023 in 2020.
County Attorney Martin responded to Lindsey’s claim on Sept. 21, stating that the county “stands behind its interpretation of the local law” and challenging the way Lindsey calculated their compensation. Martin also said the county has requested an opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office on the interpretation of local law governing the salaries.
Base salaries for the chairman and constitutional officers are calculated on the “highest minimum annual salary” paid to a constitutional officer of the county. The two attorneys’ different interpretations hinge on how the base salary for the county’s constitutional officers is determined.
Lindsey’s calculation of the “highest minimum annual salary” includes annual cost-of-living increases that match state increases and longevity increases that are paid for each completed term of office, along with local supplements paid to a particular office by the county. The county’s calculation does not include the cost-of-living and longevity increases nor local supplements in the base salary computation.
According to Lindsey’s calculations, Clerk of Courts Linda Hays, who has been in office longer than any other local elected official, has the highest minimum annual salary, due in part to longevity increases and a local supplement awarded by the county; according to the county, Judge Bell has the highest base salary at $88,929, excluding longevity, cost-of-living and local supplemental increases.
In her Sept. 21 letter, Martin writes that including the clerk’s longevity increase of 5% for each of eight terms in office has the effect of automatically increasing the chairman’s and Bell’s salaries by 40%. “This is particularly concerning where neither the chairman nor the probate judge have currently completed a term,” wrote Martin.
Furthermore, said Martin, Lindsey’s computations “include local supplements as part of the proposed minimum annual salary … This has the effect of taking a local supplement awarded by the Board of Commissioners to a specific official … and applying it to all four constitutional officers and the chairman.”
Martin also points out that Lindsey’s computations “duplicate longevity and COLAs. This has the effect of further compounding the longevity bonus, a fact which is exacerbated with each successive term served by an official.” Martin says this is problematic since COLAs are “intended to reflect a single, incremental cost-of-living adjustment for a given year.”
Martin acknowledges in her response that the way the county has historically computed elected officials’ salaries is open to interpretation. She said there have been attempts in the past four legislative sessions to have clarifying legislation approved, but the General Assembly has not yet acted on those requests.
State Rep. Pam Dickerson, D-Conyers, said HB 1170, which clarifies the way compensation is calculated for the sheriff, the tax commissioner, the judge of the Probate Court, the clerk of the Superior Court and the chairman of the Board of Commissioners, was successfully passed out of the House of Representative on June 19.
“This legislation was in progress before our Legislative session was suspended March 13, 2020,” Dickerson said in an email. “A notice of this proposed legislation was advertised in the legal organ... for a week. In my conversations with Chairman Marcello Banes, he indicated the need for the bill to be passed this session.
“It is my thought, if there was a disparity or need for clarification in the bill, it would have been brought to the attention of the Legislative delegation to ensure a win-win for Newton county,” Dickerson added.
“The bill was immediately transmitted to the Senate and read and passed, then tabled by Senator Brian Strickland,” Dickerson wrote. “The bill was asked to be placed on the local calendar for passage, and was assured it would be done. This bill was never taken off the table, and therefore was not placed on the calendar for passage for this past legislative session. When any bill is tabled, and not placed back on the calendar, it fails to pass in that legislation session.”
Lindsey has requested a meeting with county officials to “handle this matter and review all the applicable laws, documentation and calculations.” Martin said the county would be happy to meet and discuss the issue. “ … we share your desire to resolve this amicably and expeditiously.”
Calls seeking comment from Banes and Lindsey were not returned. Bell said she would not comment at this time about discussions with the county regarding her salary.