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In debate over benefits, Quorum Court faces rare veto

In a rare move for the Baxter County Quorum Court, Judge Mickey Pendergrass has vetoed Ordinance 2022-6 on Monday, stating that the events that led to the ordinance’s passing were confusing and out of order.

The ordinance, which passed on Jan. 4, would have replaced and amended sections of the personnel policy manual of both Baxter County and the Baxter County Sheriff’s Office.

“The actions taken this past Tuesday evening were both confusing and out of order in my opinion, with many of you all really not knowing what just happened,” wrote Judge Pendergrass in a letter vetoing Ordinance 2022-6. “It has placed considerable stress and concern on me as I take this very serious step. So again, respectfully, I ask that any and all of you please come by and visit with the considerable concerns that I have included in the list below before considering such a move.”

The debate over benefits and personnel policy manuals returned to the court on Jan. 4 after Baxter County Justice Ty Chapman and Dennis Frank put forth an eleventh-hour amendment to potentially repeal Ordinance 2021-35 to the court’s agenda.

That ordinance, which was passed in Sept. 2021, separated the Sheriff’s Office policy manual from the county’s, allowing Sheriff Montgomery to provide extra benefits to his deputies.

If it had been repealed, the county would have reversed the extra benefits given to those employees while ensuring they kept their additional pay raise, which was passed separately in Dec.

Questions surrounding the ordinance’s legality arose after new information about potential state code violations came to light.

“My concern with this whole thing is if there’s a group of employees in this county that are not part of the Sheriff’s department,” said Justice Dennis Frank during the Jan. 4 meeting. “And once they figure out, ‘I’m getting ready to retire and here’s how much I’m going to get here and here’s how much I could get with the department. I’m suing.’ And if they sue, the first one that sues and if he wins, they’re going to line up, and we’re going to be bankrupt. And everything the Sheriff is done and that we have done is going to be for nothing.”

After a motion to table the ordinance until Feb. failed, Justice William Waldrop proposed an ordinance to repeal sections of Ordinance 2021-35 and amend sections of the Baxter County Sheriff’s personnel policy manual and the Baxter County personnel policy manual.

The ordinance repealed sections 500.3, which oversees vacation leave, and 500.4, which oversees sick leave, of the Sheriff’s Office policy manual.

The court agreed to amend both policy manuals to mirror each other regarding vacation time and sick leave, leaving Judge Pendergrass with the decision to either sign the newly passed ordinance or veto it.

During the meeting, Pendergrass and others voiced concerns over the rules by which the ordinance passed, along with the cost of implementing the new policy.

Those concerns, he said, led to Monday afternoon’s veto.

“Per 14-14-905, Adoption and amendment of ordinances, this ordinance that affects all Personnel Policy of Baxter County Employees, is required to go through three separate readings, on three separate days unless by 2/3 majority the Quorum Court suspends the rules,” Pendergrass stated in his veto. “In this same area, it also has always been the desire of this court and of all elected officials, that such a huge chance of policy go through the many hours and days and maybe even months of consideration, corrections, updates, etc. that the amendment to the ordinance did not receive.”

Concerns over Robert’s Rules weren’t the only issue at hand for Pendergrass. He also cited the potential $3.3 million price tag of implementing the ordinance as passed and the difficulty in implementing the new vacation and sick leave policy, the price tag of which would continue to grow every year the ordinance was implemented as it was originally written.

The county’s payroll and IT department also looked at Ordinance 2022-6 and have yet to figure out a way to implement it into the county’s current payroll system.

“Our payroll software provider has stated in absolute terms that it cannot be done,” Pendergrass wrote. “Our IT department in our portal doesn’t go that far, but state if it can be done, it may take two years or more to write the code. This should be done first if it is doable. So it will be kept by hand till, if and when a code can be found to do otherwise.”

Another cited cause for concern with Pendergrass was with the Sheriff’s Office.

In his veto, the judge states that Ordinance 2022-6 came directly from the Sheriff’s Office. No other elected official or department head was consulted before the ordinance was presented to the court. He also stated that no justice of the peace asked for any opinions from county officials, springing the issue on them at short notice.

Sheriff John Montgomery, who asked the court to adopt the ordinance during the Jan. 4 meeting, has been a vocal proponent of raising wages and benefits with county employees, including his own deputies and jailers.

Members of the Sheriff’s Office currently receive more pay and benefits than other county employees. In last Tuesday’s meeting, Montgomery asked the court to pass the new ordinance to rectify that discrepancy, raising the benefits of other county employees to match those of his staff.

“I ask you, ‘what would the reaction have been if the roles were reversed?’” said Pendergrass to the court’s justices in his letter. “So therefore, as is our tradition and possible rules we have instituted in the past, this ordinance is not good for the County, or its financial welfare being acted on in such short notice and rife with problems.”

Now that the ordinance has been vetoed, it returns to the Quorum Court, who will decide on whether they should vote on overriding the judge’s decision during their Feb. 8 meeting at 6 p.m.

A total of seven votes are needed to overturn Judge Pendergrass’s veto.

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