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Blair sets law clerk starting salary

Pay of $38,500 still short of amount judges requested

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County will increase the starting pay for law clerks to $38,500 for 2020, far less than the $45,000 level that county judges requested based on pay levels in other counties. But $38,500 is also $5,217 more than they’re making now.

The salary board settled on the increase, following a lengthy discussion that included criticism of the county’s overdue salary study results and references to an “us versus them” division between the commissioners office and other county departments.

President Judge Elizabeth Doyle, a member of the salary board when addressing court-related requests, asked fellow salary board members — commissioners Bruce Erb, Terry Tomassetti and Ted Beam Jr. and Controller A.C. Stickel — to set the starting pay for law clerks at $45,000 in 2020.

Doyle provided research compiled by Judge Wade Kagarise, showing counties similar in size to Blair County paying $45,000 annually to their law clerks. Blair County’s five law clerks are paid $33,283 annually.

That stark difference of $11,717 should alone be enough to warrant a higher starting salary, Doyle told the board. But she also backed up her request by describing how law clerks help Blair County judges keep up with the growing demand for services in criminal and civil court proceedings and in custody and domestic disputes.

“What law clerks do for the citizens of Blair County in helping the judges cannot be overstated,” Doyle said before adding a comment about her own personal experience.

“I had a vacancy of nine months for my law clerk position, and my service to the public diminished during that time,” she said.

Besides legal research, Blair County law clerks also manage the county’s credit card court for those attempting to address unaffordable debt and mortgage foreclosure court for those in danger of losing their homes.

Tomassetti, who has supported higher pay for county attorneys, immediately supported Doyle’s request. But Erb, Beam and Stickel declined, based on timing, a lack of money and a lack of information from the county’s unfinished salary study.

“I’m going to be retired before your salary study is available,” Judge Daniel Milliron told the board.

Beam also expressed frustration with the lack of salary study results.

A report submitted to the county in late August was deemed to be incomplete by the county’s labor counsel. Subsequently, the county asked the East Coast Management Group/Felice Associates in October to do more work that would generate information the county anticipated. So far, county leaders say they don’t have any results to share. The information rendered in late August was deemed unusable for 2020 budget meetings.

“This salary study,” Beam said, “has been the most aggravating thing I’ve dealt with in my eight years.”

Beam suggested that the next commissioners board, to be seated in January, should consider whatever action is necessary to hold the company accountable for failing to fulfill its contract.

Perhaps the current board, Erb said, will consider action before the end of the year.

Erb is the only current commissioner who will remain in office in January, when he is sworn in for his second term with first-term commissioners Amy Webster and Laura Burke.

Tomassetti encouraged the board to respond now to Doyle’s request while acknowledging what he described as his own “lack of faith” in the overdue salary study.

Milliron and Kagarise also asked for action now, while pointing out that the salary board has been authorizing other pay adjustments while the salary study has been pending. And commissioners approved a union contract earlier this year, Kagarise said, resulting in higher pay for assistant district attorneys and assistant public defenders.

“We have law clerks (who are attorneys) making $12,000 less than the attorneys working one floor up from us,” Kagarise said.

Milliron also referenced an “us versus them mentality,” which he linked to the county’s human resources department. Prior to the salary board meeting, the department generated information with reasons as to why a $45,000 starting salary for law clerks was too high. Milliron disagreed with information in the document.

“Employees getting hired under your tutelage … are getting hired at more than our law clerks,” Milliron said.

Human Resources Director Katherine Swigart, who was at the salary board meeting, said her department’s research found that other counties pay their law clerks less than their attorneys. And while Blair County’s law clerks may deserve more money, putting them at $45,000 would undercut the negotiations that occurred with the attorneys, Swigart said.

When Stickel began focusing on the lack of budgeted money to address Doyle’s request, Doyle said she looked within the court’s budgets and found about $8,000 that could be offered toward raises for law clerks.

The county’s 2020 budget included a $200,000 contingency fund to address forthcoming salary study recommendations. But far too much of that contingency would be spent if the county raises the law clerks’ pay to $45,000, Erb said.

When Tomassetti suggested $40,000 as an alternative, Erb, Beam and Stickel still said no.

After Doyle did a calculation and asked for about $38,500, with support from the court’s budget that would keep down the amount of contingency used, Erb, Beam and Stickel relented, resulting in a unanimous vote in favor.

“I agree that they deserve something and it’s not an unfair amount,” Erb said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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