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Seeks backpay for denied merit steps for past four fiscal years

By KATIE FITZPATRICK and AMANDA HARRISON

Staff writers

The Calvert County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 109 and three sheriff’s deputies have filed a civil injunction in Calvert County Circuit Court against Calvert County Government seeking annual salary merit step increases for the past four fiscal years.

The complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief and for writ of mandamus was filed Oct. 10 for all deputies of the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office seeking the step increases, which are earned through longevity and satisfactory job performance, for fiscal years 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, that they claim have been unlawfully denied them, according to an FOP press release. The civil suit also seeks to require the county to grant annual salary increases at the beginning of each fiscal year for all deputies who have received an annual performance evaluation that indicates a rating of at least satisfactory, according to court documents.

FOP President Thomas Phelps said after consulting with the organization’s attorney, members met with the Calvert County Board of County Commissioners publicly on several occasions and requested for “them to go ahead and offer something or develop a plan to reimburse our steps,” which has not been done.

“The membership has decided to take legal action,” Phelps said, adding that it’s an action all of the members support.

Commissioners’ President Gerald W. “Jerry” Clark (R) said that “other than the things they’ve put in the paper” and individual deputies approaching individual commissioners about the issue, there has been “no formal negotiating.”

Clark added that the county does not have collective bargaining agreements with any county employees.

“We haven’t received anything as of my knowledge right now,” Clark said.

Earlier this year, the FOP spearheaded the creation of a group for all county employees to bring to light the fact that they have not received merit steps for several years. Phelps said the civil suit filed Wednesday is for sheriff’s deputies only because the FOP cannot represent county employees.

The FOP alleges, as stated in the press release, that the county government has “failed and refused to comply with county code that mandates merit steps shall be granted at the beginning of the fiscal year based on availability of funds.” Phelps said the FOP attorney reviewed the county budgets for the past several years and “came to the conclusion” that there was a substantial balance at the end of each year.

For fiscal 2013, according to the press release, the county government projected a fund balance of $66.5 million and part of the fund balance is in an unreserved and undesignated funds account that is not restricted, committed or assigned to any use. In fiscal 2010, the fund had a balance of $17.6 million, which, over the last four years, has increased by $14 million to $31.6 million, the press release states. Thus, from these fund balances, the county had the funds available to provide deputies with step increases each year, court documents allege.

“That’s absolutely untrue,” Clark said, adding that the existence of a county surplus fund “has been their opinion since day one.”

Because deputies have been denied annual step increases, they are at least four steps lower on the pay plans or salary scales than had the county not violated the county code, according to court documents. The suit alleges deputies have “suffered from reductions in their salary” by as much as 9 percent of base pay.

Plaintiffs in the civil suit along with the FOP include Phelps, who was hired by the sheriff’s office in 2001; Dfc. David Gatton, who was hired in 2003; and Cpl. Todd Smith, who was hired in 1995. The suit alleges Phelps was deprived of pay steps resulting in an 8.88 percent, or $6,323, reduction in annual base pay per year; Gatton was deprived pay steps resulting in a 9.04 percent, or $5,990, reduction in annual base pay per year; and Smith was deprived of pay steps resulting in a 7.47 percent, or $6.095, reduction in annual base pay per year.

All deputies continue to struggle, like all county employees, to make ends meet without the merit steps that have been earned by them, according to the press release, which has “left the membership no choice but to take legal action” against the county government.