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story.lead_photo.caption FILE - Members of the Jefferson County Quorum Court and staff maintain a safe social distance of at least six feet between other people during a meeting in April in Pine Bluff. ( Dale Ellis)

The Jefferson County Quorum Court voted Tuesday to take back money from the tax collector's office because the money was improperly requested. But the Quorum Court, after a heated discussion, said the collector could resubmit his request by next week, at which time it will likely be approved.

At times the meeting got out of order as Jefferson County Judge Gerald Robinson had to bang his gavel as emotions ran high during the discussion between Jefferson County Tax Collector Tony Washington and several justices of the peace.

The original vote on the matter occurred in November and allowed Washington to increase his chief deputy's slot to $50,000.

The measure was approved, but issues followed shortly thereafter when it was discovered that the $50,000 pay was placed in the bookkeeper's slot instead of the chief deputy's.

Justice of the Peace Jimmy Lee Fisher asked for the name of the deputy chief because he wanted to congratulate the person on their promotion.

After given the name, he noticed on county paperwork that the name of the person getting a raise was not the same as the name that Washington had stated when he asked for the raise to be approved.

"I wanted to make sure I was congratulating the right person, which was Shemeka Roy, but it's showing a Paula [Splawn]," Fisher said.

According to Washington, he never gave the name of the person who would be receiving the raise when the agenda item was discussed during October's Quorum Court meeting but only requested the raise for a particular slot. Fisher said he went back and listened to October's meeting and claimed that Washington said her name approximately five times.

Fisher said he believed problems could arise from the situation making the county vulnerable to a lawsuit. After getting advice from the county's attorney, Fisher sent a letter in December asking the Quorum Court to amend the tax collector's 2021 budget back to the 2020 amount, thereby rescinding the raise that had been approved by the Quorum Court.

"He advised me in order for us to be transparent with the district, county and board, to make everything in order, that we go back to where we started," said Fisher, who added that there were many moving parts to make the appropriation and he wanted to clean up the confusion it had started. "We want to make sure we don't have any litigations going on later due to what went on earlier."

Justice of the Peace Danny Holcomb said the Quorum Court was the one creating confusion when it tried to tell Washington how to run his office. "All our job should be is to budget money and let him make the decisions he needs to make," said Holcomb, who also said names should have never been made public during a meeting. "We got too involved."

"I'm not trying to run his office, but I'm trying to make sure as I take office, I take it with a clean slate and a clean understanding," said Fisher.

Fisher also clarified why the names were mentioned in the first place, saying it was as a congratulatory gesture. Washington said he really didn't want to reveal a name when Fisher asked.

"I asked myself why. I gave him the name because who I put in what slot and what title I give them does not matter," Washington said. "It only matters in my office. Why is this an issue?"

As a two-year elected official, Washington said he gave the raise to Paula Splawn, who he felt deserved it most because she had been there for over three decades and is the backbone of his office. At the request of the Quorum Court, he moved her from the bookkeeper slot to the chief deputy slot last month to reduce confusion.

Robinson told Washington he could come back to the Quorum Court after the vote was rescinded and resubmit it, adding that if Washington took care of the matter quickly, the changes would not interfere with the paperwork he has already submitted.

"That's fair for me and for you," Fisher said to Washington.

In the same department, a personnel matter was addressed to the Human Resources Committee about Samella Thomas, who said in a letter that she was the lowest paid staff member and has been in the same position since March 1, 2008.

She said on March 22, 2019, she found out she was being paid less than other deputy tax collectors in the office who are in the exact same position, three of whom were hired between five and 11 years after she was hired.

"The letter was presented as a concern from the employee to the tax collector," said Robinson, who said Thomas declined his offer to address the quorum during Tuesday's meeting. "He in turn brought it to me. There's no action that we can really take on it."

Washington said the only reason he brought the letter to the Quorum Court was because Thomas' concerns were before his time in office. Washington also said he wanted to make clear that her letter had nothing to do with the raise he requested for Splawn. "She [Thomas] has been asking all year long," he said. "It's not because of what happened last month."

Washington said the slot Thomas is in is at the maximum amount, and while he can ask for an increase, he feels if he does it for her he will have to do it for everyone. "The Quorum Court set those slot amounts," said Washington. "On my end there is nothing I can do."

Robinson said the matter was an in-house situation that concerned the tax collector and his employee.

On a positive note, the committee meeting ended with Vonysha Goodwin's treasurer report that brought welcome news.

Goodwin announced that the county's end-of-year balance for 2020 was $1.3 million ahead of 2019 and that the county spent $6 million less in 2020 than it did in 2019. "As a numbers person, to see those types of numbers--that's awesome," Goodwin said.


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