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Sheriff: Payouts will bust budget

Lawrence County Sheriff Jeff Lawless said he is not sure how he will absorb another $150,000 hit to his already strained office budget and is hoping county commissioners will find some other way to pay recent arbitrator’s decisions in favor of his employee’s union.

Meanwhile, former Sheriff Tim Sexton is disputing claims some of the grievance issue is his fault.

Late last week, attorney Mark McCown, who handles union negotiations for the Lawrence County Commission, said an arbitrator had officially notified him that she had decided in favor of sheriff’s office employees in two grievances they filed against the county.

One grievance pertained to the amount the employees paid for health insurance. The other grievance was filed when employees learned the county commission was considering making changes to the county’s health insurance plan.

The two grievances amount to roughly $150,000. Commissioners have said that money must come out of the sheriff’s office’s budget. The $150,000 is on top of a roughly $177,000 cut from his budget at the beginning of the year when the commission enacted a 15-percent across the board cut for all departments in an effort to balance the budget.

Commissioner Jason Stephens said there is no place else to get the money except from Lawless’ budget.

“It’s not there unless we take it from another area of the budget,” Stephens said. “We already have less money to work with. We have $300,000 less in interest income and now this. It’s not so much the grievance as it is just everything. There is no extra money.”

Fellow Commissioner Doug Malone said he sympathized with Lawless’ plight.

“He’s doing a tremendous job with what he has to work with,” Malone said. But he said he didn’t know there was any money elsewhere in the budget to help him.

“I don’t see it now but we’ll work with the sheriff any way we can. It’s a bleak year,” Malone said.

Lawless disagreed with McCown’s statement that one grievance occurred when his predecessor, Tim Sexton, failed to notify union members of proposed changes to the county’s health insurance plan.

Lawless said contracts for insurance are made by the county commission and other department heads do not give much input regarding what kind of health insurance the county employees get or how much they pay for it.

Lawless said the sheriff’s employees’ union contract does in fact state the employees are to be notified of any changes before the changes are made.

Sexton said the commissioners, who negotiate both health insurance and employee contracts, are or should be responsible for informing employees if they plan on making changes. He said as sheriff, he was never involved in negotiations of this kind with the Fraternal Order of Police union that represents the sheriff’s office staff.

“In the eight years I was in office, it was made clear that insurance and wage negotiations would be made by legal counsel,” Sexton said.

“I did not handle insurance matters and was not involved in the bidding process,” Sexton said. He said he was being blamed for something that was not his fault.