June 15, 2016 Edition

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Court approves raise
during tense meeting

Megan Heyl
Staff Writer

After heated crossfire and a denied adjournment vote, the Lawrence County Quorum Court decided to give a three percent raise to county employees with an ordinance to be passed at the next meeting.

The decision was made following confusion about what had previously been decided on how to handle salary adjustments, longevity pay and the budget in general.

County Judge Dale Freeman made several claims, including that his budget was missing money, that funds appropriated to the sheriff's department were a waste of taxpayer's money and that County Clerk Tina Stowers and County Treasurer Marilyn Crafton were mishandling funds.

"I've had my budget shattered by a couple of employees here," he said at the beginning of a claim that he did not have money in his fund from a half-cent sales tax that was approved for the road department. He instead said that money was in the general fund and hadn't been moved properly by the treasurer.

Justices Alex Latham and Donald Richey looked over the numbers with Freeman several times during the meeting, but were unable to determine what Freeman was trying to show them. After going over the figures, Latham said he didn't understand what Freeman was saying.

"All we know is what's on paper," Latham said.

However, Freeman said they couldn't trust the numbers because Stowers had changed the budget three times since it was approved and Crafton had been moving funds without permission. He also blamed Stowers for the $180,000 that had been required to offset the deficit in the sheriff's department, saying that she hadn't handled the budget properly.

Justice Junior Briner agreed that there were problems in the sheriff's budget and it had to be amended, but the money was there to cover the expense. Freeman said he didn't agree with fixing mistakes by writing checks, and if money was handled properly from the beginning the county would be able to give raises like it should.

Briner said he didn't think Freeman understood the budget and added that if they had the committees like had been requested, then they could go over the budget, raises and more and be able to determine what was wrong.

Freeman has repeatedly said that he is against committees because they try to take action without his input. Still, Freeman had agreed at the previous meeting to form a committee to specifically look into matters pertaining to employee salaries, though no such committee has been formed at this time.

After some heated exchanges, including some mild threats, between Freeman and Justice Nathan Crafton on the matter of the treasurer's management of funds, Justice Jim Jones moved to adjourn the meeting. Crafton left immediately but the rest of the court stayed after Freeman said they were not going to adjourn.

"We aren't going to get it settled like this," Jones said. "We're not going to sit here and argue like a bunch of fools."

After the denied adjournment, Freeman continued down the agenda until county employees started to speak out. Sgt. Rose Neighbors, a county jailer, asked the court why no decision was made on a raise.

While some discussion was held on the need for a raise, not only based on state increases but also due to increased competition in the job market, the issue hadn't reached a conclusion when brought up at the beginning of the meeting. Employees and elected officials made their voices heard on several issues including pay equality across departments, higher pay rates for longer serving employees and making sure they had some input in how salaries would be addressed.

Justice Lloyd Clark made the motion to start with the three percent raise and continue to adjust after that, stating that the employees needed to see some kind of action taken by the court.

Following the meeting, Stowers and Marilyn Crafton addressed Freeman's allegations.

Crafton, who wasn't at the meeting, said she understood that Freeman believes she has taken $300,000 that belongs to the road fund and placed it into general when in fact she has documentation showing the transfer from general into the road fund that occurred in January. She said she also holds the court order required to make the transfer to the road fund, which is signed by Freeman and Stowers.

Both Crafton and Stowers were at a loss for how to proceed as they have both been over the documentation with Freeman.

"I don't know what to say," Stowers commented. "I feel like anything I would say would be to defend against something I didn't do.

Also at the meeting:

Public Defender Chris Jester explained that his budget was off due to the state authorizing the hiring of a second part-time public defender for the Third Judicial District. He said he wasn't sure if that was going to happen when he made the budget so it did not reflect the added expense. The state covers the salary and insurance of the new employee, but Lawrence County will need to pay about $500 a month for other expenses.

Freeman informed the court that the county is being sued due to not having the proper permits from Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality when installing culverts along the Cache River during Latham's administration as county judge. Latham said he believes they did everything that was requested of them, and he wasn't too concerned by the lawsuit.

the court appropriated $989.25 in pass through funds to the jail maintenance fund.

Walnut Ridge Mayor Charles Snapp made a presentation about growth in Lawrence County. See related story in this week's print edition.

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