RICH JAMES: Judicial employees don't merit special treatment

2014-06-15T00:00:00Z RICH JAMES: Judicial employees don't merit special treatmentBy Rich James nwitimes.com
June 15, 2014 12:00 am  • 

What is it with some of the judges in Lake County?

They put on the black robe and think they can walk across Lake Michigan.

And I suspect some of them think they are the reason we celebrate a holiday on Dec. 25.

Just the other day, for instance, the Lake County Council bowed under the threat of a judicial mandate and told 15 judges they can use $360,000 for bonuses for their 82 employees.

The judges had threatened to mandate the raises if the council didn’t come across with some money.

Had the council refused the demands, a judicial mandate may have reached into the millions of dollars.

Either way you look at it, the judges are wrong. They aren’t all-knowing, and certainly not holier than thou.

The judges whined that their employees hadn’t had a raise in six years. Neither have most of the other 1,600 county government employees.

Are those who work for the judges more deserving than those who take care of a multitude of records for the treasurer, auditor, recorder and clerk? I certainly don’t think so.

Are court employees more deserving because their bosses have mandate powers? I would hope not.

County government has been through tough times since 2007, when the Legislature froze the local property tax levy because the county refused to adopt an income tax. Hundreds of folks didn’t have the chance to clamor for a raise because they were laid off.

I can’t recall the omnipotent judges taking on the General Assembly to have the freeze lifted so county workers might get a raise. Perhaps the judges didn’t want to anger legislators who set judicial salaries around the state.

The judges tried to justify the bonuses by saying the money isn’t coming from income taxes or property taxes.

The money is coming from fees lawyers pay the county for access to the courts’ online document system.

In essence, the judges are saying the money is theirs to spend as they see fit.

I don’t buy that for a minute. There are a number of county agencies that charge a variety of fees but use the money to help pay for their operations – not salaries. Just a few get supplemental pay.

And the heads of other governmental offices don’t have the power to mandate or threaten to mandate pay hikes.

Judges likely will stir the pot again in late summer when they may demand that today’s bonuses be converted to permanent salary hikes.

That ought to be enough to force the County Council to come up with a plan to provide periodic raises for all county workers. Perhaps all user fees – or a portion of them – ought to go into a pay-raise pool.

Most county government workers are terribly underpaid. They all deserve raises, not just the ones who work for those who think a black robe is cause for entitlement.

Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. Email him at rjames@219.com. The opinions are the writer’s.

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