The Oneida County Labor Relations/Employee Services Committee (LRES) wants more information on its options before it will decide whether to pay back the Wisconsin Retirement System (WRS) deductions taken from the paychecks of four county officials.
Oneida County Treasurer Kris Ostermann, County Clerk Mary Bartelt, Register of Deeds Thomas Leighton, and Clerk of Circuit Court Brenda Behrle are asking the county to pay back deductions taken out of their checks in the second half of 2011.
The four say the deductions should not have been taken out of their pay because they were working under a contract.
"Back when Act 10 was implemented, it put through that all county employees would start paying a higher portion into the Wisconsin Retirement System," Ostermann told the committee Wednesday. "In the statutes for elected officials, the county is not allowed to change anything with our wages until after our term. The term for the Register of Deeds, the County Clerk, and myself ends this Dec. 31 (the Clerk of Court term ends after 2014), so they aren't supposed to change anything before that. A lot of the counties thought Act 10 gave them the opportunity to change our wages and take out our higher portion when they're not supposed to do it, we believe anyway, until after Jan. 1, 2013."
Making the situation even more complicated is a court case in Eau Claire County. The sheriff and the treasurer in Eau Claire County sued to get their deductions repaid.
"Eau Claire County's sheriff and treasurer took the matter to court and the judge agreed with them that the county had to pay back what it took out," Ostermann said.
Eau Claire County is appealing that decision.
Complicating matters even further, Ostermann said the county intended to take the deductions from Sheriff Jeff Hoffman but reversed course after he threatened to sue.
"The LRES committee was going to take out the higher portion from the sheriff and he came back and told them if they did that, he was going to sue them and they decided it wouldn't be favorable for them to go to court, especially after the decision by the judge (in Eau Claire County)," Ostermann said. "And that's what we're saying, that they can't take this until after our contract is done."
After the LRES office made the decision not to move forward with the deductions for the sheriff, it also decided to repay the deductions taken from the four in 2012. However, the deductions from August through December of 2011 have not been repaid.
"They said if they weren't going to take it from the sheriff, then they shouldn't be taking it from us and they stopped taking it out and paid us back for 2012, but the Finance Director (Margie Sorenson) thought it was going to be a big bookkeeping hassle to give us 2011 back," Ostermann said. "They decided they wanted to wait until the appeal in Eau Claire is done. The appeal was just filed in September, but, before that, in June, Eau Claire County paid back the officials and paid the attorney's fees."
Ostermann also said that the bookkeeping hassle described by Sorenson shouldn't be a problem.
"All our accountants and other county officials we've talked to around the state say it's not going to change any of our tax forms or anything, so we shouldn't have to worry about that," Ostermann said.
Sorenson said she's not sure how accurate that information is.
"I'd have to refile the 941s, the 941C's, the W-2s," Sorenson said. "They say I wouldn't have to, but I'd have to check that out and research it."
Oneida County Human Resources Director Lisa Charbarneau said the decision to hold off on paying back the 2011 deductions was made because the county wanted to wait and see what happened with the appeal so that it didn't have to go through the possible bookkeeping mess for no reason.
"We left the decision on what to do about 2011 until the Eau Claire County case was resolved," Charbarneau said. "I checked with Eau Claire County to see what the status was and I have an email from their HR director as well as their corporation counsel that says they are appealing the decision."
Sorenson said it might even be a good idea to wait until a statewide decision is made on the issue.
"I see this as a statewide issue because the counties have all done it differently," Sorenson said. "Maybe we should wait for a statewide solution."
Committee members asked Sorenson how much it would cost the county to pay back the deductions and she approximated that it would be around $4,000.
"I would guess we're talking about around $4,000 because it is just four people for part of the year. It's about $1,000 per person, probably a little more," Sorenson said.
Committee Chairman Ted Cushing directed Sorenson to gather more information for the committee before it makes a decision on how to proceed.
"We need to have Margie look into it, come up with some answers, and bring it back to us," Cushing said.
Ostermann said the issue is simply about fairness and adherence to the contracts signed by the elected officials.
"We just want to be treated like everybody else because, back in 2011, we were the only four people out of the entire county that had these deductions taken out," Ostermann said. "The unions didn't finish their contracts until at least the end of the year and the non-represented employees, the county took it out but also gave them an increase in wages to cover it and we didn't get that because they can't change our wages. They knew they couldn't change our wages, but yet they took out the deductions, so we're asking for it back."
Marcus Nesemann may be reached at email@example.com.
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