Flathead County Could Owe Deputies $1M in Back Pay

By Beacon Staff

A district judge has ruled that Flathead County owes a group of sheriff’s deputies three years of past wages after miscalculating their salaries — a sum that could add up to $1 million.

Deputies, who earn a percentage of the salary paid to the sheriff, sued the county in 2006 and successfully argued that $2,000 added by the state to the sheriff’s base pay should be included in that calculation.

District Judge Katherine Curtis ordered the county in November to pay past wages to 29 former and current sheriff’s deputies. County Commissioner Joe Brenneman said preliminary estimates show that after those wages, penalties and attorney’s fees are paid, the county is “likely looking at a million-dollar hit.”

The total compensation owed to deputies won’t be known until accountants recalculate the salary, overtime wages, county contributions to benefit plans and longevity payments of each deputy affected.

In 1981, the state Legislature passed a law entitling deputies to receive a longevity payment equal to 1 percent of their minimum base salary for each year of service.

In Flathead County, all longevity payments had been based on the minimum base salary a deputy could receive — 74.1 percent of the sheriff’s salary — rather than on the minimum base salary corresponding to a deputy’s rank. By statute, corporals receive 84.5 percent and sergeants receive 86.5 percent of the sheriff’s salary.

Judge Curtis rejected arguments by Deputy Flathead County Attorney Jonathan Smith that the same method had been used to calculate deputies’ wages for decades and that the deputy sheriff’s union had consented to the method when it approved numerous contracts with the county.

Curtis ruled that deputies are eligible only to receive past wages for the three years before county officials changed their calculations to reflect the $2,000 raise in July 2006.

Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan said that “even though only 29 deputies were involved in the dispute, everyone affected who has money coming will be compensated.”