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Washington County officials OK using federal covid-relief funds for employee raises

by Tom Sissom | October 22, 2021 at 7:34 a.m.
File photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/STACY RYBURN The Washington County Courthouse is seen July 27 in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Washington County's justices of the peace on Thursday approved spending more than $400,000 in American Rescue Plan money for raises, premium pay, hiring incentives and bonuses for employees at the Detention Center and Juvenile Detention Center.

The Quorum Court unanimously approved an ordinance spending the $406,647.03 in American Rescue Plan money. The ordinance provides for a $3 per hour raise for all full-time employees at the Detention Center and Juvenile Detention Center along with money for sign-on bonuses and referral incentives.

A proposed amendment that would have taken the money from the county's general fund reserve instead was defeated with only four votes in favor and 11 against the amendment. Justices of the peace Suki Highers from District 11, Evelyn Rios Stafford from District 12, Shawndra Washington from District 8 and Eva Madison from District 9 voted in favor of using money from the general fund instead of the American Rescue Plan funds. Three of the four who voted for the amendment that failed said they did so because the American Rescue Plan money is a one-time infusion of funds that can't cover the continuing costs of pay raises and incentives. Madison said the cost of the increases over a full year come to about $1.6 million.

"We cannot continue to rely on ARP funds to sustain us," Madison said, adding that she supports the employees and recognizes their needs. "They deserve it, and now is the time to do it. But this court has to have a serious discussion about how to make this sustainable."

Robert Dennis, justice of the peace for District 10, said he supported the spending for multiple reasons. First, he said, county employees who are being paid $15 an hour or less are struggling economically and the county has seen many of its lower-paid employees leaving for other jobs. Second, he said, using the money to increase wages will lead to it circulating in the local economy.

"If you give someone a raise who's making less than $15 an hour, they're spending 100% of that money," Dennis said. "I'll vote for it. I'll vote for anybody who works for the county to get a raise."

The county's 2022 budget was also on the agenda for Thursday's meeting. The ordinance approving the budget was read once Thursday. A motion to suspend the rules and put it on its third and final reading failed, leaving the budget on the agenda for the Quorum Court's November meeting. Unless the justices of the peace agree to suspend the rules, county ordinances must be read at three separate meetings before they can be approved.

Action on the budget was tabled at the Quorum Court's meeting in September after several justices of the peace said they had questions about public defender pay and staffing for the county's two juvenile court judges.

The Quorum Court's Finance & Budget Committee had recommended changes in the staffing requests for the county's two juvenile courts. The committee recommended transferring five employees from Judge Stacey Zimmerman's Division III court staff to the new staff for Judge Diane Warren in Division VIII. Four new positions were also allotted for Warren's staff. The state approved the creation of a second juvenile court for Washington County, and Warren was elected to the position in 2020. She began serving in January.

Warren told the justices of the peace her original request was to have the two courts equally funded for the work they have in common. Her request would have given her 11 employees.

In July, Public Defender Denny Hyslip said in a letter to the Finance & Budget Committee that within the last year one attorney moved from the public defender's office to the prosecutor's office for more pay. Two other attorneys left for different jobs with more pay. In his letter, Hyslip listed one chief deputy public defender and 15 deputy public defenders on his staff.

"The loss of three attorneys within a year places the office in a continuous state of fluctuation," Hyslip wrote.

The Public Defender's Office also cited the county's Criminal Justice System Assessment's review of the discrepancies in pay.

According to the assessment a lack of parity in pay between prosecution and public defense "creates a revolving door for public defense as attorneys look to do similar work for higher pay often with more resources."

Also Thursday, the justices of the peace approved adding $8,744 from county reserves so the county coroner can hire an additional deputy for the remainder of the year. This will help handle the workload increased by the pandemic.

The justices of the peace also approved spending about $265,000 from federal covid assistance money for remodeling and renovating the county assessor's office. Assessor Russell Hill told the justices of the peace the office's equipment and furnishings are almost 19 years old and he needs new furniture that can be configured to allow for the health protocols recommended due to the covid-19 pandemic.

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American Rescue Plan

The American Rescue Plan provides $350 billion in federal money for eligible state, local, territorial and tribal governments nationwide to offset the impact of the covid-19 pandemic, according to information from the Treasury Department.

Washington County has received $23 million this year under the plan and expects to receive another $23 million next year. Benton County will receive a total of $54 million — $27 million per year over the next two years.

Source: Staff report

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