published Monday, July 29th, 2013

Official balks at furlough days: Walker County commissioners can ask — but not tell — how to cut costs

When Chatooga County, Ga., Sole Commissioner Jason Winters proposed to cut expenses last year by furloughing county employees, Chief Magistrate Tracy Maddux declined to have his employees participate.

“He asked us to take furloughs, and we said ‘no,’” said Maddux, who has two full-time workers besides himself to handle such cases as minor criminal offenses, civil claims of $15,000 or less, and county ordinance violations.

Now, Commissioner Winters is asking for all county employees to take five unpaid holidays, and Maddux’ answer is the same: No.

“I won’t be furloughing my people at all,” Maddux said.

The impasse illustrates a quirk in Georgia government.

Maddux is one of four of Chattooga County’s “constitutional officers,” or elected officials whose offices are recognized in the Georgia Constitution: the sheriff, probate judge, clerk of court and tax commissioner.

A county sole commissioner or board of commissioners set the budget for constitutional officers, and make budget amendments — but can’t tell them specifically how to cut costs.

Winters said after a July 9 meeting with the constitutional officers that he thought they would consent to the furlough days — but that’s not the case, Maddux said.

“I think there’s other ways of doing it,” he said.

For example, when this came up once before during Maddux’ 16 years as magistrate, his office cut costs by making their own legal forms, instead of buying premade forms.

“I’ve been in office for 16 years; I’ve never been over budget,” he said.

Walker County Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell seems to have had better luck getting buy-in from her constitutional officers to take five unpaid holidays between now and the end of the year to cut employees’ pay by 40 hours, which she said would save around $250,000.

The proposed unpaid days off are Aug. 30, the Friday before Labor Day weekend; Columbus Day on Oct. 14; Friday, Nov. 8 before the Veteran’s Day weekend; Wednesday, Nov. 27 before Thanksgiving, and Dec. 26, the day after Christmas.

Heiskell met behind closed doors Tuesday with Sheriff Steve Wilson, Tax Commissioner Carolyn Walker, and representatives from the probate judge and the clerk of the court, who couldn’t attend.

“They were very, very cooperative,” she said. “I am humbled by their willingness to cooperate. They didn’t have to.”

Heiskell originally proposed that each employee take two hours off a week, but the five days off came up at the work session. Another closed-door meeting with Walker County officials is scheduled for Tuesday.

Wilson said his department will be on board — provided every single county employee is.

“If we have 100 percent participation, I have given my word we will sign off on it,” he said.

If the unpaid holidays go through, Both Wilson and Heiskell, whose salaries are set by the legislature have said they’ll take a cut in pay equal to 40 hours’ work.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@times freepress.com or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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