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CONWAY -- The Conway City Council voted unanimously Monday to approve a proposed $1.15 million settlement between the city and more than 100 current and former police officers and firefighters over a salary dispute involving a tax approved in 2001.

Judge Troy Braswell is expected to consider the proposal during a hearing today in Faulkner County Circuit Court. He could give preliminary approval and allow time for a comment period before final approval. An unopposed motion filed by the plaintiffs' attorneys suggests a final OK could come in September.

"The parties believe that it is in the best interests to end the protracted litigation and arrive at a resolution that benefits city uniformed employees," the city's lead counsel, Thomas Kieklak, said in a typed statement.

"The city and the class representatives worked hard to reach a final resolution that was financially prudent and appropriate for the city and the employees involved," Kieklak added. "Through this resolution, no fault is assigned to the City of Conway."

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Motion for preliminary settlement approval

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Attorney Thomas Thrash, who represented the officers and firefighters, said he, too, was pleased.

"It was a successful settlement for them," he said of the plaintiffs.

Thrash concurred that the agreement contains no admission of wrongdoing.

Kieklak told council members that the city would be responsible for $1 million of the proposed settlement and that the Arkansas Municipal League would pay the remaining $150,000.

The plan would benefit 66 current or former police officers and 62 current or former firefighters, Thrash said. The plaintiffs' attorneys also would get a portion of the money, though that sum has not been determined.

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Brief in support of preliminary settlement approval

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"We will have the [monetary] resources in place" to pay the settlement, Conway City Attorney Chuck Clawson said after the brief City Council meeting.

He said the city would rely on reserve funds and "budget restrictions."

Conway voters approved a local sales tax increase of one-fourth percentage point in 2001 after, the lawsuit's plaintiffs contend, the city promised to use some of the tax revenue for employee pay raises. The city has argued that the compensation plan always depended on the availability of funds as well as the tax measure's outcome.

Police and firefighters got salary increases for a time after the tax took effect but did not get raises in 2010, 2011 and 2012, a period when the city encountered severe financial problems and the national recession. Tab Townsell was mayor at that time. Bart Castleberry is mayor now.

Thrash said he expects the average payment would be more than $6,000 under the proposed settlement.

"The total amount of lost wages for each individual varies," he said. "Based on their actual losses ... they will receive a pro rata percentage of the available funds for distribution."

Thrash had previously estimated the payout would total an estimated $1.5 million if the lawsuit succeeded, but the number of people estimated to benefit also was higher then.

Some of those who could have participated in a settlement may choose to opt out. Among them is Mark Ledbetter, a council member and former firefighter. His name is listed in Monday's court document as one of the employees who lost wages during the affected period, but Clawson said Ledbetter is not participating in the settlement.

Castleberry is a former Conway fire chief, but he is not part of the settlement either.

Filed in 2012 by police officer Richard Shumate Jr. and firefighter Damon Reed, the lawsuit originally was on behalf of all city employees, although later it was narrowed to police and firefighters because of class-action requirements.

In December 2015, Braswell certified the class but dismissed an argument that the city had illegally used money from the sales-tax increase for purposes other than raising the employees' pay.

In December 2018, the plaintiffs asked Braswell to declare the city liable for what they contended was a breach of contract. The city asked the judge to dismiss the claim, and the case was headed to trial next month.

State Desk on 04/23/2019

Print Headline: Central Arkansas city settles employee pay suit; City Council OKs $1.15M deal for officers, firefighters

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