Lawsuit in West Virginia puts hold on two deputy positions

(WINFIELD, W.Va.) -- Sheriff's deputies in Putnam County have been winning a court battle with the County Commission to increase their pay. That lawsuit is now keeping the sheriff from filling two empty deputy positions, according to county administrator Linda McClanahan.

"We're on a shoestring until next year," she said.

The deputies' lawsuit may end up costing the county more than $550,000, according to their lawyer, Rosalee Juba-Plumley. The county has already paid out about $420,000, and the final class of deputies in the lawsuit could win up to $140,000 more.

So far, McClanahan has been able to cover the cost of the lawsuit without having to cut essential services or lay off staff. She doesn't expect that to change, although commissioners may be hard pressed to find money for a cost of living raise for employees, she said.

The county has tightened its belt in a number of ways. For example, two open sheriff's deputy positions haven't been filled in order to cover the higher salaries ordered by the court.

County commissioners instituted a hiring and budget freeze in October.

A department head needs to get permission from the County Commission to replace any staff member who leaves, and cannot hire additional staff.

The hiring freeze may reach the county prosecutor's office. Before the freeze, Prosecutor Mark Sorsaia asked for additional staff to deal with an increased caseload. Now assistant prosecutor Philip Morrison is leaving for a job with the Kanawha County prosecutor's office, and Sorsaia will have to ask the County Commission for permission to hire his replacement.

The county clerk's office won't be getting new record imaging equipment this year, either. The equipment would allow many documents to be stored electronically instead of on paper. The clerk's office is running out of space for the paper documents, and the imaging system would eventually save the county in paper costs, McClanahan said.

The seeds for the lawsuit were planted in 1990, when Sheriff Delbert Harrison decided to base promotions and pay raises on a point system that rewarded deputies for making more arrests or doing certain tasks.

The U.S. Supreme Court already had ruled that point systems are unconstitutional in police departments, partly because they might lead to unnecessary arrests.

Some deputies thought the point system was arbitrary and unfair. They asked the sheriff and the County Commission for the raises they might have received without the point system. The commission refused, the deputies took the county to court, and have won several legal battles.

Circuit Judge Clarence Watt will hear the case of the final 27 deputies on Thursday at the Putnam County Courthouse.

To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323. Deputies' lawsuit puts Putnam officials in bind
Scott Finn
November 28, 2000, Tuesday
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The Charleston Gazette
November 28, 2000, Tuesday
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