County addressing Sheriff’s Office payroll inconsistencies

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Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office deputies will receive changes to their pay rate — an increase for most — retroactive to July 1, 2018, after an audit by the firm Wipfli revealed past irregularities in how their pay was calculated.

The audit examined Sheriff’s Office payroll from Jan. 1, 2006 to June 14, 2018. During an Aug. 28 meeting between the County Commission and Sheriff’s Office employees, County Administrator Darren Coldwell noted that irregularities could have existed before 2006, but that was the extent of the audit.

In May, the County Commission increased the pay of elected officials and non-union county employees by approving a 7.5 percent cost of living adjustment.

The increase followed a discovery that previous bookkeeping had created a situation where Sheriff’s deputies were making more than they were supposed to in relation to the Sheriff. It was also determined that Sheriff Roby Bowe had not been receiving longevity pay increases he was entitled to under state law.

Newly hired deputies are supposed to be paid at a rate of 80 percent of the Sheriff’s salary, with incremental increases over five years to a maximum of 86 percent, as noted in the Wipfli audit. Under Montana Code Annotated, the range for a county with Lincoln County’s population is between 76 and 90 percent.

Though deputies had been receiving a higher than agreed upon pay rate prior to the Sheriff’s salary increase in May, most were being paid below that percentage after the raise.

According to documents from Coldwell, the hourly pay increases that deputies will see as a result of the audit will vary from $1.41 at the high end to $0.11 at the low end.

During the Aug. 28 meeting, discussion centered around whether the deputies — who are unionized — and county would need to enter negotiations before adjusting pay.

In an Aug. 29 email to affected parties, Coldwell said the County consulted with the Montana Association of Counties and concluded that deputy pay could be brought into compliance with the agreed-upon percentage.

During the meeting, a Wipfli auditor on speakerphone said that the firm had sampled random paystubs to see if there were inconsistencies. In one case, auditors found a deputy’s pay had changed three times in one year with no explanation.

The audit also showed that, among four employees with the same length of service, one was being paid $0.20 less an hour than the other three.

County Commissioner Mark Peck said it was a bad situation all around.

County Human Resources Director Dallas Bowe said that the existing spreadsheets used for previous payroll are incomplete.

“There is no rhyme or reason for how things were done,” Coldwell said.

Longevity withheld

During the Aug. 28 meeting, the County Commission also discussed a previous freeze on longevity pay. In two consecutive years, no Sheriff’s Office employee received the one percent annual increase for longevity that state law requires.

The longevity pay freeze was recommended by a previous salary committee, and took place in fiscal years 2015 and 2016. It had to have been approved by the sitting commissioners, yet there is no provision in state law allowing them to do so.

Coldwell said at the meeting that, because the deputies had both been receiving a too-high percentage of the Sheriff’s salary and had missed out on the two years of longevity increases, the County intended to treat one as canceling out the other.

In his email, Coldwell told the affected parties that the longevity issue would not be resolved immediately, and that the pay increases do not reflect the issue being corrected.

“That piece of the puzzle will take a bit longer, but I guarantee you personally it will be corrected,” he wrote.

Moving forward

During the meeting and in his email, Coldwell stressed that any employee who wanted their pay more closely examined could request it.

“If there is anyone who feels they have been overlooked, slighted or just have a question, please don’t hesitate to ask,” he wrote.

One concern raised in the meeting was whether, on closer examination, some employees may actually have received less pay over the years than they were supposed to, even factoring in the incorrectly applied base pay rate.

Dallas Bowe said it was also possible that errors may have shorted some employees on years of longevity.

Due to the state of existing records, determining whether the incorrect base rate sufficiently offset the missing longevity would require the county to re-do payroll, paycheck by paycheck, going back at least 12 years if not more, she said.

Peck said the county would deal with the missing longevity and bringing deputies within the correct percentage first, then address any individual concerns.

As of the Commission’s Wednesday meeting, no Sheriff’s Office employee had requested a further audit of their individual pay, Coldwell told the commissioners.

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