Vick hires same staff; Commission implements probate office changes

HAMILTON - Marion County has split ways with Monroe County in south Alabama and is no longer one of two counties in Alabama using a fee model to operate its probate judge’s office.
Special legislation passed in 2017 has now taken effect in January 2019, ordering the Marion County Commission to furnish the local probate judge and office staff with paychecks and benefit packages through the county’s General Fund.
Up until now, the probate office has been funded by fee revenues collected from services provided by the probate judge. This was known as the “fee system.”
The county has now joined the rest of the state by implementing a “salary system.”
Implementing changes
Marion County Probate Judge Paige Vick told the commission during a meeting on Monday, Jan. 14, that she has chosen to hire the three clerks who served under former probate judge Rocky Ridings.
Before Vick was given the floor to make her request formally, an executive session was added to the agenda to discuss the good name and character of an employee.
Ridings, who was serving his final day in office on Jan. 14, was present at the meeting. The closed session lasted 30 minutes.
Afterwards, Vick approached the commission, requesting that no chief clerk be named until a one-year probation period had lapsed and that the three clerks’ pay be capped at $13 per hour during that time.
In an email sent to the commission, Vick clarified that the clerks would be paid $12.50 per hour, with a step-raise scheduled in six months.
In that memo, she noted that, with the addition of a county benefit package, the clerks’ pay rate would be worth roughly $19.50 an hour in total.
Vick said that any new or future hires would not be started at the $12.50 rate; however, the returning employees are being offered the pay rate based upon their experience in the office.
The fee system held the probate office as a separate entity from the county commission and  paid the judge’s salary and office expenses and employees from revenue generated by  the office (driver’s licenses, marriage licenses, etc.).
When running for office in 2012, Ridings campaigned heavily on switching the office to a salary system, which would designate the office as a county entity and provide the judge and employees with county benefits.
After election, Ridings said that the commission refused to work with him to negotiate the options for the office and he took matters into his own hands.
Ridings, with the help of the county’s legislative delegation, now-retired District 17 Rep. Mike Millican, former District 6 Sen. Paul Bussman and state Senate District 6 Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, had House Bill 359 introduced and passed during the 2017 Legislative Session, restructuring the probate judge and probate employees under the county commission’s umbrella.
During the process, Ridings came under heavy criticism by the commission, who ultimately filed suit against the bill. The commission lost its case, but was able to get some clarity on the bill’s language.
The probate judge and commission ultimately drafted and signed a compromise in December 2017, finalizing the restructuring.
According to the commission’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget, the probate office is anticipated to cost the county’s General Fund $183,000.
This compromise directs probate clerks’ pay to be capped at $13 per hour and the pay of a chief clerk to be limited to as much as $15.50 per hour.
As Vick noted, on top of their hourly pay, probate employees will be receiving the county’s benefit package, valued at roughly $17,000.
Additionally, a first-year probate judge will receive 71 percent of a first-year district judge’s salary of $118,947, equaling $84,452 annually.
This will increase 1.25 percent for each year of service up to a maximum of 25 percent from the base salary—a $1,056 step-raise per service year.
In other business, the commission:
• Agreed to appoint Melinda Frix to the Marion County Department of Human Resources board of directors. She is filling the vacancy of the late Nina Fredericks.
• Agreed to stock the Marion County Revenue Commissioner’s Office and the Marion County Probate Judge’s Office both with $2,000 in petty cash.
Marion County Administrator Brooke Slatton explained that the petty cash will help service residents needing services throughout the entire day.
• Appointed District 1 (D-1) commissioner Keith Nichols to service on the Marion-Winston Counties Community Action Agency’s board of directors in lieu of now-retired D-1 commissioner Kenny Jackson.
D-2 commissioner Kenneth Cochran was also appointed to the board in place of his predecessor, the now-retired Eddie Byrd.
• Gave permission to Marion County Engineer Mike Shaw to place an old county garbage truck and tar tanker on to be sold as surplus.
• Empowered Shaw to post a full-time position in the Marion County Solid Waste Department.