County, Deputies’ Union Await Court Resolution to Back Pay Dispute

By Beacon Staff

Flathead County and a group of sheriff’s deputies are waiting on a court ruling that will determine how much they are owed after an error led to their past wages being miscalculated for several years.

Deputies successfully sued Flathead County in 2006, arguing that their salaries weren’t increased proportionally when the sheriff’s base pay was increased $2,000 by the state Legislature. Deputy pay is based on a percentage of the sheriff’s salary.

Last November, District Judge Katherine Curtis ordered the county to pay the past wages to 29 current and former sheriff’s deputies.

Now, according to Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan, there could be as many as 60 deputies owed back pay, though he said he was confident the amount owed falls “well below” the $1 million some county commissioners estimated in the wake of the court ruling.

Following the ruling, in what Meehan called “an accounting nightmare,” accountants for the county set to work recalculating the salaries, overtime wages, county contributions to benefit plans and longevity payments of the affected deputies. Then the county turned its findings over to the accountants and attorneys for the Flathead County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, the union that originally filed the suit.

“There were some contested calculations on the back pay,” Jordan White, the local union’s president, said. “The court will have to make a decision on where they stand.”

Jordan said the union returned its calculations about six weeks ago and hopes for a decision from the court sometime soon. The difference, according to White and County Administrator Mike Pence, stems from the formulas used by the deputies and the county regarding the number of hours worked annually.

“There is some difference from our perspective to theirs, exactly how that is figured,” Pence said. “We’re waiting for a ruling from (Curtis) on whether that formula being used meets the criteria set forth in the lawsuit.”

The calculations involved are complicated, based on a 1981 law passed by the Legislature entitling deputies to receive a longevity payment equal to 1 percent of their minimum base salary for each year of service. In Flathead County, longevity payments had been based upon the minimum base salary a deputy could receive, but did not account for the higher base pay of ranks like corporal and sergeant.

During the court proceedings, Curtis rejected the argument by the county that its calculations were valid since the deputy sheriff’s union had signed numerous contracts using that formula, but she did stipulate that the deputies were only eligible for three years of back pay.

Meehan said the issue was common in sheriff’s departments throughout the state, and in Flathead County, the issue is slowly being solved.

“It was really no one’s fault,” Meehan said. “There was nothing malicious on anyone’s part.”

White, for his part, agreed.

“The deputies certainly want to just see it reach a resolution,” White said. “We’d just like to see it settled, but we understand the process and we’ll just patiently wait.”

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