A proposal for an $18,592 raise for a county law clerk sparked a nerve with two Lawrence County commissioners at a special meeting Tuesday of the Lawrence County Salary Board.
Nonetheless, the wage increase was approved by a 3-2 vote.
Lawrence County Common Pleas President Judge Dominick Motto proposed the increase for his law clerk, James Fee, touting his hard work and exemplary abilities. Commissioners Morgan Boyd and Loretta Spielvogel cast the dissenting votes. Motto, who holds a vote on the board as a row officer, cast one of the votes for approval, along with Commissioner Dan Vogler and Controller David Gettings.
The raise is retroactive to Aug. 3, and boosts Fee's salary for this year from $54,908 to $73,500.
Motto, in his appeal for the increase, reasoned that every judge in Pennsylvania is entitled to have a law clerk. Judge J. Craig Cox has been without a law clerk for about a year when his former law clerk left and went into private practice. Since then, Fee has been doing the work for both Motto's and Cox's courts.
Motto touted Fee for his "very exceptional abilities" that enabled the county to save the cost of one clerk, $76,000, which includes wages and benefits. He noted that Fee's new wages are consistent with what the county's assistant district attorneys and assistant public defenders are making.
"I can't continue to ask any law clerk to work for two people," he said. "That just wouldn't be fair."
Boyd countered that S&P Global Ratings notified the county on July 20 that its general obligation debt was lowered two notches, from A-plus to A-minus.
"The county has a very weak economy," he said.
On top of that, COVID-19 resulted in the county receiving $1 million less in revenues, and that the county has zero dollars in its reserve fund, and the county increased the tax rates earlier this year, Boyd said.
"My question is, is now really the time to be giving one employee, who's working the same hours, an $18,592 raise?" he queried.
Motto pointed out that Fee "is working a lot harder, and is constantly running back and forth between the two courtrooms. This saves the county $50,000. The county having one law clerk for two courts "is part of your plan to reduce costs."
He pointed out that a court employee unexpectedly died recently, who wasn't replaced, and another position was abolished.
"I think that the courts have been more than accommodating, and this is consistent with that pattern," Motto said. He pointed out that had the proposal been denied, there is nothing to say Judge Cox wouldn't hire his own law clerk tomorrow at a cost of $76,000.
In Fee's defense, Motto said, "He's working really, really hard and has unique abilities and talents. He's currently earning the money."
The base salary for the county's law clerks is $35,000, and their wages get bumped up to $45,000 if they pass the Pennsylvania Bar exam. Fee's salary was $54,908 because of his longevity and the annual raises he received in his position, on top of the $45,000.
Gettings commented that he agrees with the raise proposal and would be voting in favor of it.
Spielvogel said that since she took office in January, some votes have been harder than others.
"I know this employee is everything anyone has said about him," she said, "but that doesn't make him unique."
Each department in the courthouse has had drops in their employee numbers, and there's not a department that has all of the positions filled, she pointed out. She cited other county employees who have done exemplary work, above and beyond, for no extra money, including county planning director Amy McKinney, voters services director Ed Allison, recycling and solid waste director Jerry Zona and county public safety director Jeff Parish, to name some of them.
"All have exemplary service and none of them are compensated to a private sector level," Spielvogel said. "I don't find the vote (in favor of Fee's raise) is financially responsible or shows government accountability.
"Maybe if there was extra money we could give a little back to the taxpayers," she suggested. "We raised their taxes. This is not the time for this," she echoed. She asked if there is a way the other judges' law clerks could share the load.
Motto said no, that his request is because of the "fine abilities of this individual. If he were to leave tomorrow, this resolution would be canceled."
Vogler commented that when he first took office in 2004, Motto became the president judge six months later.
"The first conversation we had was that he was going to be a frugal president judge," Vogler said, telling him, "you've kept your word. This proposal saves money. It's an easy yes vote for me."