Judges say furloughs could have unintended effects

ALBANY, Ga. -- In their last meeting before rendering a recommendation on whether to accept or reject County Administrator Richard Crowdis' proposed budget, the Dougherty County Commission Finance Committee heard pleas from two county judges who asked that their employees not be forced to take unpaid furlough days.

Probate Judge Nancy Stephenson and Chief Superior Court Judge Willie Lockette asked the committee to consider exempting court employees from taking the 12 unpaid furlough days in fiscal year that starts July 1.

Calling the services offered by the Probate Court "the best bargain for the taxpayer" of any department in the county, Stephenson asked the committee to consider the hardship her employees would be under when asked to take what amounts to a 4.6 percent pay cut at the same time that some of their health insurance costs are doubling.

"This is an extreme hardship on our clerks, who are providing a growing service for the county in handling vital records but who, like many others, have spouses that have lost jobs and are seeing their health insurance premiums double," she said.

Speaking in favor of all 600-plus county employees, Stephenson asked the committee and commission to consider any alternative they can find -- including raising taxes -- to get the $1.8 million Crowdis estimates the unpaid holidays will generate.

"Y'all will all be heroes if you can manage to keep the taxes down and I'm all for keeping taxes down, but I just ask you to take another look at the budget and the burden some of your employees will face and try and find an alternative," Stephenson said.

Lockette joined Stephenson, saying that the committee should consider the possible impact the unpaid days will have on the court's ability to function and the possible financial increases that could occur.

In terms of the jail, Lockette told the committee that he believed that an unpaid day each month could delay vital court functions such as bail hearings that would keep inmates locked up unnecessarily for longer periods of time at the county's expense.

Lockette also said that if other court offices, like the Clerk of Court, were made to absorb the unpaid days, it could hinder a person's ability to file legal paperwork or court documents in compliance with state- and federally-mandated deadlines.

"It's all up in the air about what the consequences would be if an office like the clerk's office were closed on a day that would be a deadline that a legal item be filed," Lockette said. "All of the judges are concerned about being caught in the vice between honoring our constitutional duties or abiding by the scheduling of furloughs."

Among other cuts, Crowdis is recommending that the commission change most of the existing county holidays from paid to unpaid and add three more unpaid holidays to the calendar so that employees would take one unpaid day each month.

While the county can't force the judges to take the unpaid days or an equal amount in a salary reduction under the Georgia Constitution, judge's clerks and other staff who are county employees would have to participate.

Commissioners listened to Stephenson and Lockette and offered little comment.

Following the judges' statements, Crowdis presented the final pieces of the FY 2011 budget proposal which was the Capital Improvements Program budget and the smaller budgets that the county operates.

On Wednesday, the committee will vote on whether to accept or reject Crowdis' budget proposal. If it passes, it will then head to the full Dougherty County Commission for consideration.

Crowdis has asked that the commission tackle the unpaid holiday issue as quickly as possible to give county employees as much notice as possible that the first proposed unpaid day, July 5.